Photo: Pixabay / Public Domain Photo: Pixabay / Public Domain

The failures of this government to control the pandemic have pushed schools and communities into an extremely difficult and dangerous situation, writes Sarah Kilpatrick

I want to start by saying how much I love my job. Working with young people is an enormous privilege, and it was with great pleasure that I welcomed my new Year 7 tutor group as they began their secondary education in September. In the weeks since then I’ve learned about their interests, their concerns, their hopes. I’ve watched them form new friendships and rekindle old ones from their primary school days, which must feel like a lifetime ago to children who have been out of the classroom for six months. I’ve read them poetry every day, and now, with encouragement, they’ve began to read aloud too. Some have even shared poetry they’ve written themselves. I am enormously proud of them, and how well they’re coping in these challenging times. My message to them in September was, and remains, ‘I’m so glad you’re here’.

As a secondary Art teacher, I spend time with hundreds of children every week. Each different class has their own challenges, their own characters, their own talents to celebrate. My exam classes, returning from such a long absence, come with additional pressures. They feel the limitation on their time keenly, and know that uncertainty over how the rest of this academic year will play out will impact on them in a more immediate, and yet long-lasting way than it will their younger peers.

Against the backdrop of a pandemic, the same dramas, the same relationships, the same worries, laughter and tears are being played out in every school up and down the country. No matter where you work, the students are always the best thing about the job. At the heart of everything that school staff do is the wellbeing of the children we teach. The Government, despite all of their carefully timed criticisms and defamatory statements to the contrary, know this. They know that our priority will always be the students in our care and they’re happy to exploit that. This is how we have found ourselves in the health and safety crisis we’re currently facing.

Many of us are now six weeks into the most challenging year of our careers. Never have we faced such an immediate threat to our health and safety in the workplace. Never before have we had to fear bringing home an invisible, but potentially deadly threat to our loved ones. Friends in the NHS offered advice to us during lockdown, not to touch our masks, to immediately get changed on arriving home and put our clothes in a bin bag. To have the washing machine door open ready so we didn’t have to touch it. Not to hug our children.

This has all fallen by the wayside. We’ve had to normalise the threat. Accept it. Working in a school with over a thousand children means there is no way of avoiding the risk. The children might be wearing a mask in the corridor, but they aren’t in the classroom. I might not be able to mix with another household, but I can spend six hours a day in rooms with up to 32 other people.

It is all too easy, once you have accepted the danger of a new way of working, to become complacent. When a child asks for help, I have a choice. I can do my best to explain a task they’re finding difficult verbally, from a distance; or I can put my mask back on, look at their work with them, and do my job to the best of my ability, even though I know I will increase my risk of exposure by doing so. Talking to colleagues up and down the country, in every age range, in every setting; I know the majority are choosing the latter. Updated guidance from Public Health advises us that we no longer need to send a whole year group, or even a whole class, into isolation on confirmation of a positive test. We are now advised to send home only those “in close contact”. If a teacher has breached that advice and spent more than one minute within less than two metres of that child, there is no guarantee that they will even be informed of a positive case, as the risk assessment states that we must all teach from the front, the children in rows, never approaching within two metres. How many colleagues will feel secure enough in their job to admit that they failed to follow the risk assessment? How many additional cases will there be as a result?

When children sit in a classroom together for long periods of time – and in many schools they have been assigned one room in which to spend their entire day, with teachers coming to them to prevent unnecessary movement around the school – they don’t remain glued to their seats. The old habits remain. If John forgot his pencil, Katie will still lend him one of hers. Jane will still pass a note to Jenny. Sam will still throw that paper aeroplane. It doesn’t matter how many windows you have open, or how many times you tell the children to bring in their own equipment. Just like the rest of us, they’re only human. This virus is spreading, and it is spreading in our schools. The explosion of new cases is not down to people bending the rules in the summer. It’s not down to a long overdue increase in the capacity of the testing system. It’s because the schools are open, and being forced to run as if nothing is different. As if the outside world doesn’t exist. As if the vulnerable members of our communities don’t matter.

My union have offered advice to Government which would help limit the spread. Our requests are simple and easy to accommodate: we need more space, more staff and smaller classes. We have volunteered our time, our expertise, our insight into the inner workings of the school day, and yet we have been ignored. The strain is starting to show. Colleagues are stretched too thin. The anxiety and fear that we so carefully box away while we work appears at 4am. We miss our families. We miss our friends. This job is an important one, and it is one that we all cherish. We are willing to make these sacrifices, and have been doing so since March. But we have been utterly abandoned by a Government who see us as disposable. Replaceable. We are not safe at work, which means that our communities are no longer safe either.

Sarah Kilpatrick is a teacher and NEU activist in Gateshead. This article is based on her contribution to the North East Safer Schools Campaign meeting on 8 October. Sign the campaign’s petition here.

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