'How is it any safer now than it was in December?'

Vaccinated teachers talk of relief – but most teachers are no more protected than they were last term, says Haili Hughes

Haili Hughes

Schools reopening: Are teachers who haven't had the Covid vaccine any safer than they were last term, asks Haili Hughes

As the time approaches for school staff to return to face-to-face teaching on Monday, millions of teachers are looking forward to standing in front of their classes and becoming immersed in school life once more.

However, this feeling of relief is also coupled with feelings of anxiety or apprehension for the thousands of teachers who will be returning to school when they have not received the vaccine. 

Although there are no figures on how many teachers have been vaccinated in the UK, more than 20 million of the most vulnerable in society have received their first doses

Some teachers will have fallen into that category because they are over 50 or have underlying health issues. Yet this still leaves a vast proportion of school and teaching staff returning to work full time without any further protection than the measures schools have put in place. 

Schools reopening: The anxiety of teachers who haven't had the Covid vaccine

There is no doubt that senior leadership teams across the country have worked extraordinarily hard to keep their staff and students safe since last March, ensuring that masks were worn in communal areas, that social-distancing measures were put in place and that there were opportunities for staff and students to wash their hands, as well as ensuring that rooms were well-ventilated. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough and cases in schools rocketed, with many year groups having to isolate for weeks at a time. 

So what has changed now, as staff prepare for school again next week? And how is it any safer now than it was in December, when cases are still high in many places? This is a question that many are left asking themselves, and it is definitely increasing anxiety.

I posed a question on Twitter to school staff, asking them how they are feeling about returning – and, if they had been given their vaccine, whether this had made them feel any safer. It seems there is a real divide in feelings between those who have received their first doses of the vaccine and those who haven’t. 

Some teachers commented that they had been given their vaccine and were feeling a little safer because of that extra layer of protection. One teacher, whose vaccine appointment is this week, spoke of “the palpable relief” they felt when they got the call from their doctor’s surgery. 

Another said that they felt that having the vaccine has enabled them to “do more things in the classroom, such as being able to walk around and formatively assess”, which they felt very reluctant to do beforehand. 

For those who live with people with immune disorders or who care for people with health issues, having the vaccine has made a huge difference – particularly also for those who work in special schools or hospital schools. A teacher in a hospital school commented: “I am so grateful to have been vaccinated – my students are also patients, and I need to do my best to keep them safe, too.” 

'I was grinding my teeth and drinking too much'

For some, receiving the vaccine has made an enormous difference to their mental health. One teacher told me: “I didn't realise how badly the fear was affecting me – I was constantly grinding my teeth and drinking too much. I had the jab on Sunday and cried with relief. I haven't wanted to drink or cry since then, and my stomach no longer hurts.”

Other teachers are feeling marginally safer, but are still not completely comfortable, because they have only had their first dose and still have a number of weeks to wait until they are given their second. 

For those with vulnerable children or partners, this is a real fear. “My daughter has had the first dose and will be having the second on 9 April,” one teacher said. “She's shielding, so every time I go into school before 9 April, I'll be nervous about going home. 

“If she gets [Covid], she could die, and that could be my fault. Imagine living with that?”

Many teachers commented that their feelings were conflicted, as although they felt happy that they had received the vaccine themselves, they felt guilty about other colleagues not having been given the opportunity. One teacher confided that they felt as “guilty as hell”: they felt "better having had it, but still edgy because of the number of people who haven't had it.” 

The unvaccinated teachers who spoke to me overwhelmingly stated that they would have felt safer and more secure returning if they had been given the jab. Most felt that it was only right for workers on the frontline, such as NHS and care workers, to be vaccinated first, but that teachers should come shortly afterwards

“It just baffles me why teachers are not prioritised yet are expected to go and mix with 30-plus children in a confined space, with no PPE [personal protective equipment] for six hours a day, five days a week,” one said.

Others voiced their frustrations about the seemingly bizarre decisions that have been made about when people are vaccinated, with one teacher telling us that her partner had been given the vaccine the day before, when he was working from home and hadn’t been in the office since last March. 

Finally, there are some members of staff who will be returning to work next week unable to have the vaccine – such as pregnant women – and who are very anxious. One teacher told me: “I’ve constantly seen 'vaccinate the teachers', and I’ve just wanted to scream, ‘What about people who can’t have it?’” 

Teachers have worked bravely and tiredly throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, and, hopefully, whatever your situation, safer working conditions are on the horizon for all of us. 

Haili Hughes is an English teacher at Saddleworth School in Oldham, Greater Manchester. She tweets @HughesHaili

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