School children in England will finally be back in classrooms from March 8th to the relief of most parents. Little exercise, limited contact with friends, a lack of concentration in online lessons and strained eyesight are just a few of the problems families have been facing – and that’s before the devastating toll of months of lost learning is taken into account.
Some children have received excellent online provision, while others have had negligible contact with their teachers despite government pledges to drive up standards across all schools during lockdown.
Under the reopening plans, secondary school and college students will be tested for Covid-19 four times over the first two weeks of term – three times on site, along with one home test. After that, they will be asked to carry out the rapid coronavirus tests at home twice a week. This seems more feasible than expecting schools to turn themselves into long-term operating testing centres but places the responsibility for accurate testing on families instead.
It is understood that headteachers will be given some flexibility to stagger the return of students from March 8th, to ensure pupils are tested before returning to class. However, this does not go far enough for teaching unions which have demanded a ‘phased return’ to the classroom, similar to Wales and Scotland where schools began reopening to the youngest pupils in Monday.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said it was ‘difficult to understand’ why the approach in England is so different from the decisions taken elsewhere in the UK.
However, the government clearly hopes its rapid testing plans will keep Covid-19 under control in secondaries – although there is no testing so far planned for primaries.
Face masks will also be required in secondary school classrooms ‘for several weeks’ if social distancing of two metres is not possible. Ian Noon, head of policy at the National Deaf Children’s Society, has branded the decision ‘devastating’ for deaf pupils. And once children are back in schools, the catch-up begins.
An extra £400million in funding has been announced this week, along with £300million pledged for catch-up projects in January. The £700million package includes £200million to fund face-to-face secondary summer schools. Teachers will decide which pupils benefit from the scheme. However, Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has failed to listen to demands from teaching unions and Labour over the vaccination of school staff. Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer said it was ‘frustrating’ the government did not use half term to vaccinate teachers. And Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, insists such a move is ‘in the national interest’.
Speaking as someone who regularly volunteers as a steward at a local vaccination centre, I’m confident the vaccination of local teachers could have been achieved swiftly and efficiently during half term.
It has already proved far quicker to vaccinate younger age groups, mainly based on their better mobility. It also seems like basic common sense that frontline workers such as teachers should be prioritised.
The goal is, after all, to keep everyone as safe as possible when pupils return – and for schools to not only open, but to stay open. Unfortunately, I think this was a missed opportunity that the government may come to regret.
Sarah Harris is a freelance education journalist who regularly writes for the national press. She is a former education correspondent at the Daily Mail.