'We're sending teachers off to swim in Covid soup'

When Irena Barker's teacher husband and children return to school next week, she fears they will be vulnerable to germs

Irena Barker

Coronavirus: Will my teacher husband and children pick up germs at school?

After months and months of lockdown, I suddenly have a lot of dates in my diary: the day my two youngest children return to the local primary, the day my oldest starts at his new East London comprehensive, and the day my husband starts back teaching at his gritty North London academy.

It’s a wonder these dates are not circled in gold and sprinkled with unicorn glitter. I haven’t had a moment’s peace since 20 March and – like many – all creative ambitions have been completely dashed.

So why don’t I feel quite like celebrating, perhaps with a half-price meal and a haircut? 

Maybe because it feels like I will be sending my family to swim in what my lively imagination has started to picture as a murky green Covid soup.

Normal swimming lessons may be off for the foreseeable future at the local baths, but school has a special course for anyone happy to take the risk (just joking: you have to go).

Coronavirus: No teacher is an island

We talk of the safety of year-group bubbles, handwashing and social distancing, which provided a lot of reassurance when my youngest attended Reception in the summer term. There was a handful of children in her class, teachers looked happy, and they had a ball, even if they weren’t allowed to touch one another in the playground. 

From what I realise was a smug position of good health, I actually thought the furore was a bit overblown, and people should just damn well get back to their desks.

But the September “everyone in – or else” restart feels very different. 

Guidelines have been issued, and schools are busting a gut to conform to them. But, if there’s anything we’ve learned through this pandemic, it's that no man – or teacher, or school – is an island.

In a week’s time, my children will be bouncing about merrily in their heavily expanded bubbles (90-strong groups at primary and 180-strong at secondary). My husband will enjoy the luxury of an indulgent one-metre of social distancing between him and his many, many classes. 

Sharing germs

He doesn’t look hysterically stressed about the return to lessons, but he has screwed up his face several times at the thought of Covid-related misbehaviour. 

A well-placed cough or spit on the floor are now potentially lethal weapons – it’s no wonder teachers want the reassurance of a face mask.

The government can talk about how “safe” everything is for all it’s worth, but the school start will, of course, expand my family’s list of direct and indirect social contacts into the hundreds. 

And – because this is how families work – we will share any germs acquired through those contacts every evening. My husband isn’t going to stop kissing his kids goodnight, even though many people working in the health service during lockdown did exactly that. 

Teachers living with vulnerable people will be making some very difficult decisions right now.

This return to school feels like a massive step, even though we’ve largely got used to the shadow of the virus and the tsunami of hand sanitiser that is meant to stop it.

A gumbo of new social contacts

It no longer keeps me awake at night worrying, but it may do in the coming weeks. Only a month ago, we were all feeling queasy about attending a socially distanced picnic attended by six people. Now we are being asked to stir ourselves into a gumbo of new social contacts from across a wide area for long periods.

I agree with the government that we have to return to school, and we have to return now. The months of missed education have been a tragedy, but one we can recover from. Any longer and I’m not sure. I have little faith in the power of the internet to provide meaningful education to all at this present moment, much as I would like it to.

But I’m not particularly reassured by the research being publicised in recent days. Much of it seems a little too convenient for a government trying to urge a traumatised country back to school.

We have been told that primary pupils don’t pass it on, and that they’re more likely to catch it at home than at school. We’ve even heard that teachers pass it on more than their pupils.

Fears about reopening schools

I’m not sure how many staff will believe that the only thing they have to fear is their colleagues in the staffroom, not the sweaty hoards of unpredictable teenagers squeezing down the corridors.

Only this morning, we had the news that 17 staff at a special school in Scotland have contracted Covid-19. It is certain that there will be similar incidents in England after the return.

I think, above all, we need to hope that, throughout this potentially terrifying but necessary transition, schools will listen to individual teachers’ and pupils’ concerns. 

If they want to wear a mask, for example, let them. If it gives them the confidence to come into school, then why not?

We are all individuals, with individual needs and anxieties, and we are all connected.  Something we would all do well to remember.

Irena Barker is a freelance journalist writing about education and youth issues

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