Teachers feel unsafe returning to school today

Today, 1 June 2020, is a bittersweet day for teachers. It is the day that many Reception, Year One and Year Six pupils return to school and so too will they. Of course, some teachers have remained in schools throughout the pandemic for the children of key workers, but now they will be joined by more colleagues and more children. The process has been anything but straightforward so far and it is unlikely to be a smooth return for staff or pupils. One thing is clear: teachers are hesitant about returning to work.

This article is dedicated to them.

Schools were not built with pandemics in mind and there is only so much they can do to maintain all the rules the government has introduced. The Department for Education guidance points to a maximum of fifteen children per class to maintain the two-metre rule. For a class of 30 that’s three classrooms and at least three teachers, maybe more depending on the numbers of vulnerable children and those with additional learning needs in that group. Schools with more than one cohort per year group will find this even more challenging.

Steve Iredale is a retired teacher with almost forty years’ experience. He told Yorkshire Bylines:

“Everyone wants children back in school – it’s where they learn best, socialising with their peers in a safe and trusted environment where safety is paramount. Since schools were closed to the majority of children, with the exception of children of key workers and those in vulnerable groups, teachers and support staff have worked tirelessly developing online materials and learning packs for those who lack the necessary IT, in order to try to encourage some level of home learning.”

As Steve points out, teachers have taken this pandemic in their stride. They have not sat at home waiting to return to work; instead, many have continued schooling via video-conferencing and remote learning, supporting their pupils as best they can.

Steve was headteacher of Athersley South Primary (formerly Athersley South Junior) school in Barnsley for twenty-three years. He has firsthand experience of how the things children and parents used to take for granted will now make social distancing incredibly difficult.

“Managing parents and children as they arrive on the premises even before the school day and helping unaccompanied children to appreciate the need for social distancing en-route is just the start. Different building ages and design, entrances, corridor widths, classroom sizes and toilet facilities vary massively.”

Photo by Joshua Eckstein on Unsplash

Nowadays, Steve is chair of the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) life members committee. He is also the regional team leader for Primary Futures, an organisation that connects primary schools with volunteers from a range of careers who come into school to talk to children about their jobs. He offered some personal thoughts about how he would have reacted to the pandemic and subsequent return to school, had he still been teaching.

“I’m pleased I’m no longer on the frontline of this crisis but if I was I would have taken the line of caution along with many of my colleagues. Keeping clear lines of communication with parents, staff, my governing body and those in my locality would have been at the heart of any decision-making.

“I don’t think I would have considered the identified younger age groups as being the first to return but would rather have focused on older year groups who I feel would have a more appropriate grasp on social distancing measures and maintaining them at all times.

“Bringing foundation and reception-aged children into what will be an alien environment very much against what they are used to could well prove to be counter-productive. How can they socialise like they used to?”

Young children are particularly vulnerable to changes in their environment, and this extended period of forced absence will likely have already been difficult for them. A teaching assistant from Thirsk, who wished to remain anonymous, told us how she thinks the youngest children will have a tough time responding to the new classroom settings.

“Our Early Years are taught on the fundamental belief that young children learn best through play. With the guidelines put in place this idea has had to be totally scrapped for the coming weeks. Children can no longer play alongside their friends, which is all part of their social development. Many children are excited for their return to school to reunite with their friends and be back in the classroom they know and love. When they enter school it is going to be a total shock to the system when their classroom is now set out with separate desks and only a handful of toys to play with.”

She told us how her school plans to maintain social distancing with younger children, most of whom will lack the ability to understand, let alone accept, why social distancing must take place in their classrooms.

“We have a very strict timetable to stick to, something we’ve never had in the early years classroom. There will be two members of staff per classroom. The staff and children in that class become one ‘bubble’. All children and staff in that bubble are not then able to mix with any children or teaching staff from another bubble.

“This means staggered drop off and pick up times for each child, parents saying goodbye at the school gates, children eating in their classroom and only one member of staff having access to the staff room at any one time. If children are distressed to leave parents we can take them by the hand, if they are still distressed we will have to send them home as we can no longer comfort them as we would normally.”

Yet forming these ‘bubbles’ will require a lot of classrooms and a lot of staff. Most schools will not have the resources to cope with separating children and staff in this way.

For the teaching assistant, her main concern is how to help the children adjust to the changes while supporting everyone’s mental health and wellbeing: “Balancing pupils’ and teachers’ mental health and happiness alongside theirs and our safety is going to be quite different to anything we’ve experienced before.”

Mental health continues to be a significant aspect of this pandemic. The World Health Organisation recently published an article discussing how to deal with what it calls the “mental health fallout” after Covid-19 is no longer a large-scale threat. But for our teachers going back to work today, they cannot wait until the pandemic is over. The stress of returning to what could now be a potentially dangerous workplace is real.

In Leeds, the council has reassured parents that they do not have to send their children to school if they are unable to, or do not feel that it would be safe to. Many other local councils in Yorkshire have implemented similar policies and in some cases, chosen not to re-open at all, such as in Sheffield where the local council has advised schools not to open. In nearby West Yorkshire, the leader of Wakefield Council called on the government to change its plans and schools in Bradford will not be opening before 8 June at the earliest. In York, every school has to complete a risk assessment and make individual decisions before welcoming children back.

It’s unclear why the government has chosen to push for such an early reopening or why it is focusing on these year groups. Is this about education or childcare? If this were solely about education then years 10 and 12, who are at crucial stages of their schooling – and can more easily comply with social distancing rules – would be the first back. Yet the government is insisting that children who learn best through play should be the first ones back, returning to an environment where play won’t be allowed because of social distancing rules.

As with our heroic healthcare workers, NHS staff and other key workers, teachers deserve our thanks and respect like never before. They are stepping up to make sure that education and childcare is now available for parents who are being told to return to work. They are also putting themselves in real danger, as the children and their parents will all be potential future vectors of Covid-19.

If you are a teacher returning to work today, or if you have been working throughout the pandemic, thank you for everything you do.