Boris Johnson Boris Johnson, 22 Feb. Photo: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

David McAllister responds to Boris Johnson’s “big bang” school reopening plans for 8 March

Boris Johnson’s announcement of a phased route out of lockdown was peppered with rhetoric of ‘caution’ and following ‘data, not dates.’ However, it is difficult to see how setting a mandatory date just two weeks away for pushing all students and education workers – 10 million people in total – back into crowded buildings observes either of these.

Last week, I wrote a piece outlining the reasons why fully reopening schools on 8 March is reckless and dangerous. Case and death numbers, while declining due to the current lockdown, still remain too high. Johnson has repeated his insistence that the risk of Covid to children is ‘vanishingly small’. 

Yet it was only last week reports indicated that primary school children are the age group in which the virus is currently spreading the most. Leading epidemiologists have already warned of the R number jumping back up to 1 or higher in the event of a full return this early.

The government simply hasn’t learned from its past mistakes. Following school reopening in September, cases were soon doubling every week and, despite evidence that virus transmission was highest amongst secondary school children, the government refused to implement a circuit breaker for schools.  This contributed to the catastrophic rates of infection, death and hospitalisation we saw by the beginning of January, forcing Johnson to concede that schools are indeed vectors of transmission. 

It is worth adding that the infection rate in early September was only a fraction of what it is now. Where, then, is the logic in rushing back every student and education worker in two weeks’ time? Despite the seemingly cautious and phased easing of other lockdown measures, preceding them with a rushed full return to school settings will seriously undermine these efforts.

This issue does, however, go beyond the immediate concern of unsafe schools.  The pandemic has exposed, alongside a swathe of other social issues, the serious flaws our education system has been forced to endure.  Given that the UK has some of the largest class sizes in Europe, social distancing in such settings is pretty much a non-starter. 

This is why the NEU has, for months, been calling for serious investment in schools to allow for ‘Nightingale classrooms’ to provide the extra space and resources needed for social distancing to be practicable. This should go hand-in-hand with funding to draft in the necessary extra staff, such as supply staff. These are all things which the government has had nearly a year to sort out, yet does not appear to have even considered.

It is clear that these measures will not be in place by 8 March, nor will the vaccination of all school staff. Both these need to be key demands. Predictably, nothing even approaching opposition has come from Labour leader Keir Starmer. Not only is he fully supportive of a dangerous re-opening, but he has even suggested that teachers may need to work in the Easter and Summer holidays.

Resistance, again, will need to come from education workers, the NEU, parents and our supporters in the wider community. The government is stressing that it wants no more disruption to education, and that children are best off in school. No education worker disagrees with this, but our position needs to be clear: a full return to face-to-face teaching on 8th March is too soon.

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