My message is this: when it comes to reopening schools, the full range of parental voices should be heard.
In the interests of transparency, let me begin by declaring that I am a teacher. Although I write here in a personal capacity as a parent, like many teachers who are also parents in the local authority where they work, I feel I have to remain anonymous. It is a sad aspect of our democracy that teacher-parent voices are sidelined like this.
The voices of what appeared to be large numbers of other parents, however, were raised loudly and heard clearly in the media last week. Their message was one of frustration and anger at what seemed to them to be inadequate and poorly communicated plans for the reopening of schools in August. Following the statement from deputy first minister and education secretary John Swinney yesterday, I fear that message will now become one of complacent self-congratulation.
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Actually, what Mr Swinney did in Parliament was throw into utter turmoil the plans that schools have been putting in place for "blended learning", and to make a lot of teachers and more cautious parents very scared. He did continue to say public health must remain the priority, but his tone and emphasis changed markedly, and the expectations he will now have raised among those very vocal parents will be hard to lower again.
I was scared when, in first drafting this article, I was preparing for a ministerial statement on relaxing measures such as two-metre physical distancing. Now that I’m being told to prepare for no distancing at all and a full return to schools, I’m profoundly anxious. I’m not sure what the increased risks are when there is no social distancing, but they will be exponential.
Those parents who will be celebrating today will argue, of course, that there are scientific studies showing that children are less contagious and susceptible, forgetting that the virus is still largely an unknown entity, that some children have been getting very ill with Covid-related illnesses and that such studies, so soon after the start of the pandemic, are partial and contested. They also forget that in such scientifically uncertain circumstances the precautionary principle must dictate public health policy.
They will cite other countries which have opened their schools. But those countries have much lower rates of infection than us, a much more robust test and trace capability and reach, and many additional safety measures in schools such as plastic screens around desks and all pupils and staff wearing face coverings – and one-metre distancing. Do fellow parents and Mr Swinney seriously think schools can go to zero distancing and have none of those extra measures in place? Yet he mentioned none of these and spoke only of regular testing for teachers.
Most confusingly of all, the parents celebrating today seem to be ignoring the evidence from across the world of second waves of the virus causing new lockdowns. When they claim that their primary concern is their children’s educational provision and mental health, why have they put such pressure on the deputy first minister for this early reopening and for measures that clearly over the long term could extend the length of time their children might have to be at home? A little more patience now might have helped with the eradication of the virus and ensured a quicker delivery of the very thing they want: their children’s full-time safe return to school.
Why have the parental voices that have dominated the discussion so far not been considering these factors?
As one of the parents feeling fearful and cautious about their children returning to a classroom environment and about the consequences of a second wave this winter, I am making three appeals.
Firstly, to media outlets – please seek out, and give a platform to, alternative and dissenting voices within the parent body so that the full range of views can be considered and be made clear to decision-makers who are so obviously swayed by "the public mood".
Secondly, to those parents who share any of my concerns – please speak out otherwise that same public mood will continue to be dictated by those who shout loudest. Hopefully, you will be braver than me and not feel you have to remain anonymous and, hopefully, it will not be too late to counterbalance the influence they have had so far.
Thirdly, to those parents who were feeling frustrated with the way schools planned to reopen and now feel vindicated – please remember you do not speak for all of us. But most of all remember the priority of public health, the importance of the precautionary principle when advocating changes to health policy, and the long-term wisdom of a little short-term patience.
Because it is ultimately about the lives of our children, this debate deserves nothing less.
The writer is a parent and teacher in Scotland