education

The Guardian view on Covid and schools: crossed fingers aren’t enough | Editorial


There are grounds to hope that cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant may already have peaked in some areas, including London, and also that the cumulative damage of the disease it causes will turn out to be less than in the more alarming scenarios described by scientists. But as pupils and teachers return to school, there remains cause for serious concern. It is unsurprising, based on the experience of the past two years, that the education department’s latest measures appear closer to a sticking-plaster than a strategy. But this does not make it acceptable. The publication of an open letter from the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, 48 hours before many schools were due to reopen, and the sudden announcement that 7,000 air purifiers would be available for classrooms, smack of homework left until the end of the holidays.

Aspects of the regime that has been imposed until the end of January in England, with mandatory mask-wearing in secondary classrooms and recommended twice-weekly testing, are sensible (the devolved administrations have their own arrangements, with masks already in place in Scottish high schools, for example). Ministers are right to make a priority of keeping schools open. Also welcome is the reframed guidance about the vulnerable children who must be regarded as one of the state’s most urgent responsibilities, in the event of further closures. An increase in child abuse was a predictable consequence of the pandemic, and more should have been done to help social services cope; following devastating evidence in cases including the murder of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, ministers have belatedly acted on some of the risks.

The suggestion that classes should double up, or that non-teaching staff might take charge of lessons, however, is more likely to alienate teachers than reassure them. Mr Zahawi’s reference to the “blitz spirit”, and the MP Jonathan Gullis’s cheery approval of a “teach army” of volunteers, were presumably aimed at boosting morale. But two years into a pandemic, with many parts of England still waiting for Omicron cases to spike, and ventilation issues unresolved (with open windows not a straightforward solution in colder periods or areas), the government would do better to focus on meaningful engagement with teachers and their unions than to issue nostalgic calls to arms.

Headteachers and schools have stepped up, under Covid, working extremely hard to minimise the disruption not only to children’s education but also to their lives. But with workforce recruitment and retention already known to be a serious problem for schools, as it is in the NHS, there are real worries that the pressures of the pandemic – including the threat to health for those required to spend all day in buildings with large numbers of unvaccinated people – could make a difficult situation worse.

GCSE and A-level examinations are only a few months off. Finding a fair way to manage these, despite inevitable interruptions and without exaggerating existing divisions (such as between private and state schools), will be hard. Useful work could also be done via schools in relation to vaccine misinformation and encouraging uptake, particularly in cities where it is low. The Treasury must provide additional resources to meet costs such as emergency cover for absences. Ministers and officials at the Department for Education should be mindful that, as in a foreign language test, listening to teachers is as important as speaking to them.





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