Classroom. Photo: PickPik/Public Domain Classroom. Photo: PickPik/Public Domain

Two and a half months into the first term of the school year and there is chaos, confusion and Covid in every aspect of education, argues Jamal Elaheebocus

The government, supported by the ever-loyal Opposition, forced the opening of schools on teachers and students in September, despite the warnings from the teaching unions that this would put teaching staff, support staff and students at risk.

The ONS data shows there was a steep increase in the rate of infection amongst all school pupils from mid-October, which is only now starting to level off. The ONS analysis for the week before last states:

“The highest positivity rates are seen in secondary school-aged children, older teenagers and young adults”

ONS data also shows the positivity rate amongst teachers and teaching assistants is almost the same as it is for healthcare workers. Education support workers, which includes any staff who do not teach, are also at a high risk of being infected, even higher than teachers.

Furthermore, two-thirds of secondary schools now have students self-isolating and attendance in schools has dropped down to 83%, from 87% a couple of weeks ago. My school and many of the schools in my area have had Covid-19 cases and several students are self-isolating.

This was destined to be the case from the moment the government told schools they must open to all pupils in September. The second wave we are now seeing has undoubtedly been made significantly worse by the opening of schools.

The lockdown which began at the beginning of November still did not shut schools or universities, despite them being some of the main sources of infection.

This, alongside the fact that so many non-essential workplaces have remained open, means we can be fairly certain that the R number will not fall below 1 by the 2nd December and that any extension of the lockdown will continue to have limited effect while educational institutions remain open.

We cannot carry on like this, so the government needs to finally take decisive action.

Shut the Schools

We did not have to be in a position where we have to consider closing schools again; if the government had committed to a Zero Covid strategy when the R rate was very low at the end of the first wave, we might have been in a position to keep schools open safely.

However, this opportunity was ignored; people were encouraged to ‘Eat out to Help out’ and to go back to work even when there was no need.

Therefore, because the R rate is much higher now and the daily cases are consistently above 20,000, the only way to reduce the R number is to close the schools. The Department for Education has no idea how many cases there have been in schools but we know that the rise in cases coincided with the opening of schools and universities.

However, we cannot have a repeat of the situation during the first wave, where children from poorer families were not supplied with laptops and so could not access work online, where extra mental health support for children and young people was completely missing and where teachers were left struggling to manage supervising children in school and providing online resources for students at home.

The pandemic has exposed the devastating effects of austerity on education. State-funded schools, who have already been stripped of money for the last decade, did not have the resources to provide students with laptops and often could not provide online lessons, due to lack of technology or low staff numbers. If we shut the schools, there needs to be extra funding given to state schools so that they can provide students with the resources they need to carry on learning online.

Many young people would have suffered bereavement, many will have increased anxiety levels and worse mental health as a result of the pandemic and lockdown; many with existing mental health conditions are suffering even more. We therefore need proper mental health support for all school pupils, primary and secondary, especially if the schools are to close.

Schools should close but only with proper support for teachers and students. The longer this is put off, the worse the infection rate will be and the more chaos it will cause for exam season.

Exam Chaos

Covid has exposed the exam factory as a total sham, which serves only to help children from wealthy families achieve highly and get into the best universities and careers. The algorithm dreamed up by the DfE was blatantly class-based, favouring those in private schools which had achieved highly in previous years. It downgraded working class students in state schools by several grades, denying many the chance to go to university or go into higher education.

As it stands, this year’s exams are set to be equally unfair. The devolved administrations have sensibly gone their own way, with Scotland and Wales cancelling exams. However, this will cause major problems if English schools are forced to go ahead with exams, particularly with A levels, since students from Scotland and Wales can apply to English universities and vice-versa. If the different regions are following different exam processes, with some doing in-class assessments and some doing public exams, the results will be incomparable, even if the grading system is the same for both.

Furthermore, many schools have had to shut and many year groups have had to go home and isolate since the start of September. Students who are at schools which have had more cases will be at a disadvantage, as they will have missed several weeks of teaching time.

The DfE’s proposal of shifting exams back three weeks was a pathetic attempt at a compromise. Let’s not forget, this year’s Year 11s and 13s missed four months of school earlier this year. Even excluding time for study leave and public exams, a lot more than three weeks’ worth of lessons were missed and most schools will struggle to cover all the content required with only three weeks extra to teach it all in.

Those at private schools will also be at an advantage. They will have access to more resources, have smaller classes and more teachers so will have a better chance of being able to catch up.

The proposal is not only going to be impractical but will also be a major cause of stress for students and teachers. Students are going to have less time to revise, with much more content covered in less time, and so June and July will be even more stressful than they normally are. Furthermore, there are no plans for how universities are going to be able to welcome students in late September, considering results day has been pushed back.

Teachers, meanwhile, also have little time to cover all the content and so their workload will drastically increase. Both students and teachers are also having to deal with the stress of the pandemic and not knowing whether we are infected and passing it on to our families.

The government has got to cancel exams in England and rely on teachers, who know their students best, to provide the final grades, rather than an algorithm designed to benefit better off students.

The government has made a complete mess of dealing with the situation in schools during the pandemic and Labour has failed to confront them on their failures. Once again, the social movements need to build a campaign to close schools, cancel the exams and ensure all students, teachers and schools are given the support and funding they need.

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