Heading into school yesterday, I had a profound sense of déjà vu. Another urgent email from the head explaining that there had been another positive case reported.
Another explanation that close contacts had been traced and that the situation was being monitored carefully. Another sense that the end of term couldn’t come quickly enough. Even the weather hadn’t seemed to have got the memo that it was summer, that we weren’t still in last winter.
No surprise then that I then saw Janine Gibson, assistant editor of the Financial Times, tweeting: “In case you are not close to London education system right now, let me inform you that the schools are in absolute chaos. Covid running rampant.”
To put numbers on that, official figures show that around 4 per cent of secondary students and nearly 3 per cent of primary pupils in England were last week absent because of Covid, with around 72 per cent of those off because of close-contact exposure.
In terms of new daily cases, “rampant” isn’t too far off the mark, with figures following a similar path to the end of last year.
Fears raised by rising Covid cases in schools
“It feels like December again,” someone mourned. I was wearing my coat in the office again, the windows wide open to maximise ventilation. Matt Hancock wasn’t in control, the testing regime felt farcical and the prime minister was on the telly talking nonsense. Gosh, it did feel like December.
As Christmas had approached, I don’t think I’d ever felt so uneasy being in school since being almost foiled for planting stink bombs in an assembly when I was 15. Every single one of my form group had just had a positive PCR test. I went down to do my morning register to be met with a completely empty room.
I didn’t want to touch anything, didn’t want to be near anyone. Surely I should be isolating as a close contact? Apparently someone had measured the distance between my desk and the closest pupil desk. It was a few centimetres over the limit; I was told that I was “safe” and should stay in work.
Really? A close friend worked in another local school, and the husband of a colleague of hers had just died of Covid. I hadn’t seen my elderly parents for months and they were due to be coming for Christmas. All of this felt profoundly uncomfortable.
A few days dragged by before the situation became untenable. The head bit the bullet and shut the school, and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Why caution seems the best policy
But here we are again. People getting in trouble for grabbing a hug in a corridor, Gavin Williamson talking about something utterly irrelevant, and ministers insisting that it’ll all be safe to open things up in a few weeks. It’s all too familiar.
Or is it? Reading on in Gibson’s thread, after she’d informed her followers that all was chaos, she then sought to reassure them: “I feel honour-bound to point out that everyone here is fine. Firing up the Breville for lunch because everyone’s self-isolating and it’s rainy is not a disaster.”
Those around me seem to be feeling similarly. A friend reported that, despite chunks of his son’s year group being sent home, “Everyone seems pretty chilled.”
Perhaps they are right to be. Official figures suggest that one in 60 with Covid were dying last winter, while the figure now is less than one in 1,000. While case numbers are ramping up, this is in a context of much wider access to testing, and doesn’t seem to be being paralleled by any horrendous uptick in deaths.
I am due to see my parents this weekend; I doubt that – unlike at Christmas – we will cancel.
The news this morning is dominated by headlines about assurances from Sajid Javid that we are full steam ahead for full reopening on 19 July, and that self-isolation for pupils should be abandoned in September because of the terrible disruption it causes to learning.
Perhaps the most “December” thing about all of this is that trust in government is low and confusion abounds. What we have added is an exhausted acceptance of how life in a Covid world is. Few seem to trust the results of lateral flow tests, and no teacher I know is confident that students are routinely doing them.
With a strong vaccine roll-out, there is a sense of security that wasn’t there before – yet the inevitable consequence of this is that schools full of unvaccinated children will naturally be where the virus thrives and where cases become focused.
Sadly, the mathematics is unequivocal: even at 90 per cent efficacy, as Andrew Marr has shown, one can be double-jabbed and still catch Covid. A tiny percentage of a large number of cases could still equal a number of deaths that many will feel are preventable, yet there is such a sense of fatigue about it all.
Only time will tell if the security many staff now feel because of the vaccine proves itself to be a false positive.
This time last year, we were told that Covid was over, and that over-eager messaging led to tens of thousands of deaths. As with last Christmas, for the time being, caution seems the best policy.
Kester Brewin has taught mathematics across a wide variety of schools for the past 20 years. He tweets as @kesterbrewin