The topic had only been discussed once with a colleague, and it was brief and brushed away very quickly:
"You don’t think we’ll be furloughed, do you?"
"No, we’ve got too much to do."
And we did have much to do: helping students to complete missing work, meeting exam board deadlines, working with exams and admin teams to make sure everything was submitted on time, sorting last-minute (and remotely set) interventions, and lots of other tasks. And this was before we started to look at planning, timetabling and how we would operate in 2020-21 as the impact of Covid-19 continued to be felt. We had a meeting with our managers and we let all of them know that we had a lot to finish before the end of the year.
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'Our phones lit up: we'd been furloughed'
Then the news came, and we found ourselves in the same boat as builders, shop workers, drivers and a host of other professionals around the country: we had been furloughed.
When we found out, each of our phones lit up as we all messaged, rang and emailed each other to find out what this new word actually meant. We’d each imagined it couldn’t happen to us, so hadn’t actually researched what it would mean. We were told it would last indefinitely, that it would be reviewed and it could happen again after that initial period. It was explained to us what this would mean for our pay, and we each used online calculators to show us what we would end up with at the end of the month.
We liaised with our union and were told that we shouldn’t complete any activities for work under any circumstances, and that we should wait to find out what would come next.
Talking to friends from work (and friends who work in other settings) has been both worrying and reassuring. On the one hand, there are those who genuinely worry they may not be able to make rent or mortgage payments if this lasts for any extended period of time and have started looking at any work they can do while they are furloughed (which is obviously thin on the ground). Any remaining chance of a holiday abroad this year has now completely gone for many of these staff.
Spending time with family
On the other hand, there have been staff with fewer outgoings, or partners unaffected by furlough, who are enjoying extra time with their families (though they are still worrying about what might come next).
Other than the financial side of being furloughed, and the happy time spent with children and partners, the main focus has been on filling the time. We hear and see stories every day of staff being overworked and attached to computers when remotely setting work for their students to complete, but what happens when that suddenly goes away? With no work to set or mark, and no students to interact with, I suddenly found I had a wealth of extra time.
Lots of you will be reading this and thinking, "So…what’s the problem?" With all shops, pubs, restaurants and many public spaces off limits, I have suddenly found how reliant I am on work to fill my time. I have remembered how much I used to love reading, and how many TV shows I have missed in the past few years.
I have finally found out what happened to Jon Snow and Khaleesi, finally understood the hype attached to Breaking Bad and laughed and cried along with the children of Stranger Things.
And all this has been very necessary, partly because it helps to distract us all from the uncertainty in education (what will 2020-21 look like? How long will furlough last?) and also because it distracts us from what is actually going on outside our houses, outside our jobs and at the government briefings.
It keeps us distracted from thinking about whether a vaccine will arrive in the next year, or whether we will be able to get all our classes into one room again, or about whether students will be able to take normal A-level exams again and enjoy a normal university experience.
Whatever happens next, we’ll all try to focus on spending time with our partners and kids and deal with what comes next when it arrives.
The writer is an FE lecturer at a college in England