By continuing to keep schools open, the government is forcing teachers, children and parents into an unforgivable level of danger, argues Kara Bryan
We were sold a lie. Our children are not safe in schools. Secondary school age children now have the highest rate of infections according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). It is spreading in schools faster than any other setting bar university campuses and the government’s recent concession on free school meals this week isn’t just another U-turn of a weak cabinet, but a cynical and meagre concession to appease growing anger and to divert attention from the horrors unfolding in our schools.
The government’s failures are inexcusable. The first lockdown gave them a 5-month window of opportunity to get a grip on test and trace while schools were closed and infection rates slowed. £12bn was wasted on a failed track and trace system headed up by Dido Harding, which even now still only manages to reach 62% of contacts while £500m spent on the Eat Out to Help out scheme encouraged us to go and spread the virus.
These failings have led us to a second lockdown. A lockdown in which hospitality, which according to PHE accounts for only 4% of infections, but in which schools, which account for 30%, remain open.
But this government is not simply incompetent; it is corrupt. The pandemic has provided cover for an acceleration of privatisation and Tory cronyism. It fast-tracked 115 other untendered contracts worth over £1bn, bypassing competitive tenders completely. But despite frittering away billions on untendered contracts, the Tories are demonstrably less keen on spending to make our schools safe.
The government has yet to spend a single penny on making schools safe because ‘children don’t spread the virus; children don’t get really sick’. Yet there have been enough children in ICUs globally to challenge that narrative and if most parents are anything like me, then any risk to my children’s health and wellbeing is too high.
We were promised that schools were ‘Covid secure’, that classrooms would be socially distanced and year bubbles would insulate our children from the virus so that, in the event of a positive case, entire year groups would be sent home to prevent further outbreak. For the first few weeks in September, schools liaised directly with PHE when a positive case was identified, and were advised by experienced clinicians.
But on 17th September, all that changed. In response to the overwhelming number of calls received by PHE, support for schools was outsourced to Serco, who set up a privatised Covid hotline. Serco’s response was to generously ‘upskill’ call centre staff so that 18-year-olds on minimum wage, without any clinical knowledge or qualifications, were suddenly promoted to replace experienced professional clinicians, reading from a script.
In the school my children attend there are now over 30 cases out of a student population of 1,487; that’s one in every 49 students and for each new case the school staff are advised to send only ‘close contacts’ home. Close contacts are children sitting within 1m of the infected student. If students are sat within 2m, this must be for a prolonged period of at least 15 minutes.
Thanks to a decade of austerity and sustained underfunding under successive Tory governments, Britain has the largest number of students per class in Europe with an average size class size of around 30 students, so its no wonder the virus is spreading like wildfire, reaching record levels last week. The government’s continued insistence on keeping schools open at all costs is chilling.
Like so many other parents, I am horrified by the growing number of infections in schools but the handling of those outbreaks frightens me far more. When a positive case is identified the entire class should be immediately sent home to self-isolate. In reality, only the few children sitting closest to the infected student are sent home.
The elephant in the room is aerosol transmission and it is being deliberately ignored to keep classrooms open. The use of unqualified call centre staff to advise schools in place of trained clinicians is a deliberate move to avoid closing schools which are clearly overrun with cases.
In addition, letters are sent out to parents to remind them that school attendance is mandatory, of their legal duty to secure their child’s attendance regularly and of the ability of local authorities to impose sanctions, including fixed penalty notices of £60 per parent, per child.
Meanwhile, the propaganda machine has gone into overdrive. In the summer we saw the media demonize teachers who warned of the dangers of reopening schools too early as ‘lazy.’ We are now witnessing a similar attack on our parenting. This week we heard about ‘lockdown kids’ regressing back into nappies and forgetting how to use a knife and fork, which personally I found most peculiar because I don’t know of any children that were potty trained in school.
One article in the Daily Mail went as far as to claim that school closures in the first lockdown shortened children’s lifespans. Although there was no mention of the return of rickets as a result of a decade of austerity.
We are being gaslighted. The message is that children can only be safe in schools. Only they are demonstrably not safe. I would prefer to watch my children struggling with a knife and fork than watch them struggling to breathe on a ventilator.
Many children, particularly those with social anxiety, thrived being taught at home and I doubt that the fear of getting Covid at school, bringing it home and killing Granny does much for children’s mental health.
Concerned parents faced with the threat of fines for non-attendance have begun deregistering their children in unprecedented numbers, but they should not be forced to do this to keep them safe and not every parent can teach from home. Most of us have full-time jobs and even those of us fortunate enough to be able to work from home cannot simultaneously do our jobs and educate our children effectively.
School staff put themselves and their loved ones at risk to come to work every day, even though their workloads have doubled. But let’s be honest, they don’t do it just because of their love of teaching. They do it because they are forced to work in unsafe conditions by a callous and incompetent government. They do it because they have rent and mortgages, bills to pay and families to feed. They do it because they have no choice.
The National Education Union recently described schools as an ‘engine for transmission’ and called for schools to close over the lockdown period and for rota systems to be introduced upon reopening, allowing secondary schools to offer blended learning. This enables half the school to attend classes, allowing for adequate social distancing, while the other half learn remotely online from home.
But even a blended learning offering is insufficient without a comprehensive programme of mass testing in schools. Without this, we are rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. As a parent I can only hope to see increased pressure from the teaching unions and an appetite for industrial action if that’s what it will take to protect our children, teachers and the wider community. When an average of 500 deaths a day becomes the accepted norm, something is very seriously wrong.
What is abundantly clear is that the government has zero interest in a Zero-Covid strategy. Rather than addressing issues related to chronic underfunding in schools, the Tories have cynically used the pandemic as an opportunity to accelerate privatisation. Public Health England itself is to be superseded by a privatised model to be run by none other than the infamous Dido Harding, who seems to have the Midas touch in reverse.
BRTUS the campaign to boycott unsafe schools was started by parents in response to pressure on the schools to re-open during the early summer. It offers solidarity, advice and support to parents who, like me, are afraid to send their children to school, parents who have been threatened with fines and in some cases even social services.
Both parents and teachers are being forced to lie to children about Covid. But older children are not easy to deceive, they have smart phones and social media accounts. They see the government propaganda photos of socially distanced classrooms while they spend their days in an oversized classroom ‘living the shoulder-to-shoulder reality’ as my 13 year-old put it.
Our ability to protect our children is being systemically undermined. We need regular testing and blended learning to give parents a choice. For now, against our better judgement, many of us will continue to send our kids off to school, watching helplessly as they disappear into a sea of children filing into schools.
We watch as teachers put on a brave face and a reassuring smile. We can see they are demonstrably at breaking point. They are on the front lines and know better than any of us that our schools have become petri dishes in a demented government experiment and our children the laboratory rats.
But as infection rates continue to grow, the situation becomes increasingly unstable. Action must be taken quickly before the whole sick experiment spirals hopelessly out of control.
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Kara Bryan is a writer and activist and regular contributor to the Counterfire website. She is a member of Counterfire and Stop the War
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