Gavin Williamson at a presser. Gavin Williamson at a presser. Photo: Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street / cropped from original / licensed under CC 2.0, links at the bottom of article

With record case numbers and hospitalisations, and increasing deaths, returning to school next week would be catastrophic, writes a secondary school teacher

‘Boris says “schools are safe”’.

This, tweeted in disbelief by a colleague while watching the latest coronavirus briefing on Wednesday evening, neatly sums up the catastrophic situation we’ve found ourselves in. We are governed by a group of politicians so dangerously inept, so unwilling to follow the guidance or to listen to experts, that tens of thousands of people have died. 

And yet, despite the explicit evidence of their disdain for the health and wellbeing of the public they were elected to serve; we still feel as though we are on first name terms with our Prime Minister, a man sacked from a previous job for lying, and for whom the truth still seems entirely optional, even during a time of unprecedented national crisis.

Schools are not safe. They were not safe in March when we finally closed to the majority of students. They were not safe in June when the education unions successfully prevented a wider reopening. They were not safe in September; but against our better judgement, we returned to our classrooms. 

For most of us, this meant being in a poorly ventilated room with as many as 31 members of different households with no PPE. Masks could be worn but only in corridors and other communal spaces.

Even then, for many of our students, it became the new way of showing non-compliance with uniform regulations, especially when the rules we had been faithfully following since March regarding social distancing became laughably ridiculous when thrown back into the daily mass gathering which is a secondary school.

I wish I could show you photographs of the reality of attending or working in a school during coronavirus. The cramped classrooms, the packed corridors, the lack of any PPE. But aside from the obvious safeguarding concerns, I’m prevented from showing you the truth of the situation for fear of losing my job. 

I’m writing this anonymously because, as a trade union representative during a time of crisis, supporting the rights of my colleagues has been a daily battle, throwing me into conflict with employers who want to use this crisis to tear up the rule book and force us to work under ever decreasing standards. 

A decade of underfunding our schools has led to poorly maintained buildings, outdated technology and not enough equipment to go around. Those images you’ve seen of socially distanced children, each at their own desk, two metres apart; they’re part of the lie. 

Secondary teachers like myself move from room to room, visiting a new set of up to 31 households every hour. The students remain in one room for the majority of their day, with staff coming to them. Many rooms have little to no ventilation. Several rooms I teach in have broken window latches, and cannot be opened. Others open fully with a 20-foot drop onto the concrete playground below. 

It has long been clear to all school staff that schools are the centre of transmission for their communities, and that keeping them open ‘at all costs’, ‘no ifs, no buts’ would lead to deaths.

Working under these conditions is causing enormous strain on my colleagues and I. I’ve seen hardened teachers with over twenty years’ experience in the classroom break down in tears once the children have gone home, sobbing that they just can’t do this anymore. 

All across the country, I’m hearing of people leaving the profession or making their escape plans. A Facebook group set up in June 2020, with the aim of helping teachers do just that, quickly escalated. In just six months, it grew to 11,000 members. When you read the press reports calling us lazy, denouncing our work and openly devaluing our lives and health, it is easy to understand why.

By the time the Autumn Term ended, cases were skyrocketing again. We saw a return to the exponential curve so many of us had become familiar within the spring, and a new strain of the virus appeared to be more transmissible, with a frightening number of young people and schoolchildren now testing positive.

Instead of engaging with the profession, and discussing the proposals, we had long been suggesting- hiring currently unused community spaces to create smaller classes, moving to a rota system of blended learning, providing the long-awaited laptops promised by the DfE (as yet to materialise for many schools) – the Education Secretary threatened legal action against schools which had sensibly proposed moving to online learning for the last week of term.

On Wednesday, the same day Gavin Williamson made his announcement, there were another 50,023 cases of coronavirus in the UK and, tragically, 981 deaths. The decision to reopen the majority of primary schools next week, followed by secondary schools shortly afterwards, will lead to more cases, and more deaths. 

It is impossible to guess what number it would take for this government to accept the truth of the situation. Schools, the heart of all of our communities, are not safe; and therefore neither are we.

None of this registers at all with Gavin Williamson, or indeed with Shadow Education Secretary Kate Green, whose response failed to offer anything even approaching opposition. The absurd hypocrisy of all this coming from a socially-distanced House of Commons does not seem to have occurred to them either.

Our demands need to be very clear.  We need a national lockdown which includes schools, together with the necessary support for online teaching and learning.  We also need mass testing of school staff, and a serious vaccine rollout to ensure that the disruption and danger the government has put us through is not repeated.

But it is down to us, all of us – whether you are a parent or a teacher, or simply care about community safety – to develop a combative response from below to this murderous neglect from our government, build confidence amongst union activists and fight for a solution to this crisis which they are clearly incapable of delivering.

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