The government have had a year to make schools safe for students to return, but they keep failing to learn the lesson, argues Jamal Elaheebocus
There was a real sense of déjà vu listening to Boris Johnson announce that schools will open for all students on 8th March.
It feels like we face the rushed reopening of schools before its safe over and over again. But it also felt like this was inevitable, thanks to the pressure from the mainstream media and Keir Starmer.
There seemed to be a moment in late January when the mainstream media came together and decided they would begin an entirely manufactured push to get schools open again. The Mirror’s front page on 25th January had a plea from children saying “We just want to go back to school” and at every Downing Street briefing, Laura Kuenssberg and co pushed for a date when schools would reopen, despite over a thousand people dying a day at the time.
This was backed up by Starmer’s continued calls for schools to reopen as soon as possible and the entirely fake concern of Tory backbenchers about the effects of missing so much in-person education on children.
I don’t want to belittle the genuine concerns of students and the detrimental impacts lockdown has had on so many school pupils, especially those in poverty. The combined incompetence of the government and the cruelty of the neoliberal system has meant many kids have missed out on free school meals, families are struggling to cope in overcrowded homes and kids have not been able to access online learning because of lack of access to a laptop or good broadband.
Lockdown has been made so difficult for school pupils because of the government’s decision to continue to punish the poorest in society. It is a disgrace that the Tories and the right-wing media are attempting to manipulate the stress and hardship and use it to back up their reckless campaign to open up society and let the virus run rampage.
Infection rates are still high
When the NEU forced the government into a limited and phased opening of schools in June 2020, roughly one in every 1,100 people had coronavirus. And in the week before schools were recklessly opened in September, only one in every 2,000 people had the virus. Despite the low infection rates, the push to school, combined with the effects of Eat out to Help out, resulted in infections rising quite sharply throughout September and October.
According to the latest ONS data up to 12 February, in England it is estimated one in every 115 people have the virus and this is only expected to reduce to one in 300 by the time schools are supposed to open on 8 March. While the R rate has gone below one for the first time since July last year, the prevalence of the virus in communities remains high. As Johnson himself admitted on January 4th, schools are vectors of transmission.
To any of us working or studying in schools, the reasons why schools are hotspots for infection are obvious. Fitting thirty students and a teacher in a classroom makes social distancing impossible, overcrowded buildings means that several year groups who are separate bubbles then mix together. Students are then packed on buses and trains to get home, spreading infection not only among themselves but among the wider public as well.
The latest data from Imperial’s React programme showed that 5 to 12 year olds had the second highest infection rate of any age group. Given this, there is no doubt that schools will increase the infection rate again. The difference this time is that infection rates will be much higher.
While the vaccine may help limit the rise in infection to an extent, infection rates will undoubtedly increase. This is a reckless gamble just to get children into schools for 3 weeks before Easter holidays.
Given this, the most obvious thing that has to happen is that schools need to remain closed for all but vulnerable children and children of key workers until the infection rate is at least below one case per 1,000 people. Then there needs to be a phased reopening of schools, with primary schools opening first and then prioritising year groups taking exams this year and next year.
However, we also need far more radical plans than what is being proposed by the government or Starmer’s Labour. For a start, teachers should be prioritised for the vaccine since they will be mixing with such a large number of people. This should have been done months ago and as more and more of the clinically vulnerable and elderly are vaccinated, there is no reason not to now prioritise teachers.
There should also be plans to repurpose public buildings as classrooms or put money into new buildings on school sites to facilitate social distancing in classrooms and allow for proper separation of year group bubbles. Supply teachers and newly-qualified teachers who are not employed can be utilised to allow for smaller class sizes and more social distancing.
Only through measures like these will we be able to open schools safely without letting infections spiral out of control.
What we as students need more than anything is a safe return to school. Yes, our mental health has been negatively impacted due to the lockdown, as it has been for so many people. The lack of socialising with friends and the lack of routine has not been easy to deal with. But the only way we will be able to be back in school again and get all the benefits that come with that will be through a safe, phased return to schools with provisions for social distancing in place. Only then will we be able to keep schools open and avoid worrying about whether we are bringing the virus home to our families and the stress and uncertainty of lockdowns. A rushed return to school on March 8th does not have our interests at heart.
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