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

As the number of schools with coronavirus cases continues to rise, a primary school teacher at a London school tells us what it’s like on the frontline

After only a few days back into the new term a fellow teacher said to me “We’re doing all this stuff and then they go out into the playground and lick each other’s elbows.” I don’t think she meant it literally, although I’ll admit one of the things that makes primary school teaching fun (for me, at least) is the fact that almost any such act of anarchic mayhem is never far beyond the realms of the possible. 

What hasn’t been fun (along with many, many other things in our broken education system) is the exasperation caused by trying to hold back the tide of Covid-19 in our overcrowded, underfunded inner-city Victorian school building. Risk assessments have been diligently (and time-consumingly) drafted and completed, money which the school hasn’t got has been spent in order to provide each child with his/her own individual pot containing pencil, pen, rubber etc. along with packets of antibacterial wipes needed every time (and it is often) a pot is sent crashing to the floor. 

But now, inevitably, in spite of all our efforts, we have a confirmed case of Covid19. I walked into the school building last week, at 7:30am, to see one teacher in tears and another trying to offer socially distanced support. Social distancing in schools, by the way, even amongst the adults, is rare. It is difficult to impose and sustain abnormal protocols and behaviours now that schools are ‘back to normal’ with large numbers. 

By 8 o’clock we were dealing with early arrivals from the affected year group, dropped off (against school rules) outside the school gates, from cars which barely stop, by parents rushing to their places of work. (Not many middle class working-from-home types in our school community). 

And then there are the affected adults to calculate and send home. This brings with it, amongst other things, concerns from staff members who feel, for example, that Mrs X should isolate because the Covid positive staff member – a teaching assistant – spent an hour with her in the maths room last Thursday. (“I’m not bothered for myself but my mum’s not well, and if I take this back to her …”) 

I am almost immediately co-opted into the argument. Mrs X, not keen to be forced into self-isolation, is vigorously defending herself by claiming that she was over the other side of the room throughout the lesson. “And besides, I feel fine!” which, of course, only makes things worse as phrases such as ‘asymptomatic’ and “it’s not just about you!” are shot back in reply. I struggle to get a word in edgeways as I try to prevent usually friendly colleagues from fallouts caused by (understandable) anxiety. 

By the time school starts, at 9am, we have lost 60 children and 3 adults for two weeks. By the time my first lesson is over, at 10am, the number of adults going home is six, as our own inefficient track and trace measures make their way back over the last three school days. I try to see the headteacher but he is on the phone to Public Health England. I have a list of questions, brought or sent to me on scraps of paper, around such issues as the exact definition of ‘bubble,’ and why chairs are not removed from the staff room to prevent staff sitting next to each other. 

In the meantime, having failed to see the headteacher, I am forced back to my own teaching room where I have, in addition to preparing for my next teaching group, got to wipe 12 tables & 25 rulers, because the (additional) cleaner doesn’t come until lunchtime: too late, in other words, for this mid-morning changeover.

At lunchtime I finally manage to catch the headteacher. He admits to being ‘stressed & still a bit confused’ after his conversations with Public Health England and is, therefore, still ‘a bit unclear’ about the answers to some of the questions I am raising on behalf of members. (“I think a ‘contact’ is … whereas a ‘close contact’ is … Oh, no, wait a minute …”). 

He is, however, a good headteacher, who cares enough about his staff to put their health & safety above the inconvenience their absence will cause the school. At some point, however, the elastic limit might well be exceeded. 

The next time I see him is in the middle of the afternoon, in the playground, as we cover duties for two of the missing staff. Because I am teaching all afternoon, and because of staff meeting time – allocated for appraisal meetings (not cancelled, the performance management show must go on!) – my only communication with colleagues comes from brief encounters and snatched WhatsApp messages. 

I am left wondering what will happen tomorrow.

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