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The moral duty of the government should be to save lives not risk them, argues Sean Ledwith

At the weekend we were subjected to the grotesque spectacle of Boris Johnson declaring a moral duty to reopen schools in September. The man who is directly responsible for 50 000 corona-related deaths due to his own incompetence and negligence had the effrontery to use the language of morality in an attempt to override the wholly justified concern of teachers, parents and children regarding the upcoming term. Johnson and his team expect education workers to trust the assurances of a government that has proven itself, time after time, to be hopelessly out of its depth in dealing with a crisis of this magnitude.

From a belated lockdown to inadequate supplies of PPE, and from callous neglect of care homes to a premature easing of lockdown, this government has completely botched its response to the pandemic. Across England, many parents and teachers are dreading the new term not just because of the ongoing presence of the virus but also because they have no faith in the intentions of politicians who have consistently put profit ahead of safety throughout this crisis.

Conflicting evidence

Egged on the right-wing press, Johnson and his hapless Education Secretary Gavin Williamson have trotted out totally unconvincing evidence that the September reopening should go as planned. The latter claims an unpublished report conducted during the summer found no evidence for transmission among children-perhaps, because schools have been closed for months to most pupils! On Monday, Johnson participated in a facile photo-opp in a virtually deserted school to say full classrooms are safe!

In every developed country where schools have attempted to reopen classrooms there has been a significant resurgence of the virus. When Israel tried in May, hundred schools had to close shortly after, including 153 students and 24 staff testing positive at one school alone. In Florida, Georgia and Texas similar consequences followed recent reopening. The US Center for Disease Control Prevention has reported that the evidence for limited transmission among children is not conclusive enough to justify any further reopening. Another professional body in the US, the Children’s Hospital Association, reports nearly 180 000 new cases among children last month. Although severe symptoms among children are rare, their capacity to transmit the virus to adults in an education setting is the issue that should be concerning the government.

Unanswered questions

The threadbare plans for September that are currently in place are totally inadequate. Pupils in secondary schools are to be placed in bubbles but these will consist of whole year groups so will involve hundreds, not a few dozen. The government has dismissed calls for compulsory face coverings and, ofcourse, the privatised track and trace operation is a complete joke. There is no clear guidance on how schools should respond to new outbreaks and what would be the criteria for shutting down again.

Winter will inevitably bring the annual flu season and there is no contingency for how schools can differentiate between routine coughs and colds and those now recognised as symptoms of coronavirus. The appalling threat of fines for worried parents who do not feel inclined to risk their child’s health remains in place. Teachers and support staff in the shielding category are expected to return as normal, as if the virus has just magically disappeared.  The growing number of northern towns and cities on local lockdowns also points to the imminence of the dreaded second wave. How schools in these areas are supposed to operate is another unanswered question.

Beneath his ridiculous bluster about morality, the real agenda of Johnson’s reckless drive to reopen schools is a politicised agenda to break the power of the teaching unions. Earlier in the summer, the government made June 1st an initial date for a partial return of primary and secondary schools. A dynamic mobilisation of interested parties including concerned parents and the NEU blocked this plan and forced Johnson into a climbdown. This viciously anti-union government was never going to take such a defeat lying down and is now gearing up for another showdown with parents and teachers in September. The language coming out of the Education Department is increasingly confrontational and uncompromising.

Alternatives

Many schools have shown through lockdown that blended learning - the combination of online and some classroom activity - can provide a workable alternative to normal school practice. There is no reason why substantial investment in laptops and broadband access for all pupils could not provide a route through the looming chaos of winter. Johnson claims society cannot tolerate the disparity between rich and poor in terms of access to technology and the consequent growing divide regarding achievement. The hypocrisy on display here can barely be believed.

Does anyone take seriously the concern for working class children from a government that originally wanted to deny them free school meals over the summer, has created a funding crisis that leads schools to routinely beg from parents, and has cut support services to the bone? The understandable concern of many regarding the economic impact of further delaying full school reopening could be allayed by postponing the end of the government furlough scheme until the spring. Such a move, however, would regard the prioritising of public health over corporate profit, which runs counter to the ideological dogma of Johnson and his gang.

Scottish schools have opened this week despite a poll on the eve of the new term indicated two-thirds of teachers there were anxious about the prospect. With just over three weeks before English schools reopen their doors, the Education Department has no contingency in place for a re-think if Scotland experiences a surge in the near future. US education unions are currently providing inspirational examples of how teachers, parents and support staff and children can mobilise mass action to express a refusal to walk blindly into the second wave. UK unions need to rediscover the activism that scuppered Johnson’s first deranged reopening plan in June.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History and Sociology at York College, where he is also UCU branch secretary. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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