How to ensure everywhere's Covid-safe? Call it a school

If schools are so miraculously safe that they can reopen at full capacity, perhaps we can use this label to trick the virus, says Stephen Petty

Stephen Petty

Young boy uses two drinks glasses as binoculars

If schools are deemed so miraculously safe that they can resume at full capacity, then surely the obvious thing to do is to call everywhere else a “school”, too?

By relaunching as “school cinemas”, “school pubs”, “school hairdressers”, “school nightclubs”, the whole country would gain similar divine status and be able to reopen as normal. 

Pubs, for instance, just need to rename and reopen as The Red Lion Academy, the Royal Oak CofE Primary School, The School of Our Lady of the White Hart, and so on. 

Similarly, the café and restaurant chains just need to become the Costa Community School, St Starbucks and the Wagamama Free School. 

To get sports stadia back open to spectators, Anfield just needs to rebrand as the Liverpool Voluntary Aided Junior School, and Old Trafford as the Sir Alec Ferguson Academy. 

Schools reopening: places of virus-dormant safety

To guarantee the absolute virus-dormant safety enjoyed by those of us working with 30 adolescents in a school classroom, all such places need to work on creating the right kind of scholastic atmosphere at their premises: the right scenes, the right sounds, the right smells. 

To trick that virus completely into believing it is on hallowed school ground, a bell needs to be going off at regular intervals. Reception areas need to have a small child-mannequin holding a tissue over another bloodied knee. Corporate muzak should be replaced by a soundtrack featuring the gentle burr of a school day, complete with the occasional raised voice of an excited child or of a teacher briefly losing it. 

Ideally, the vague whiff of a blocked drain needs to be pumped through the air-conditioning. A corner of the ceiling should have a bucket underneath it. There should be some concerned chat among staff about the boiler perhaps blowing up again. 

Staff also need to learn to talk as we do. Hairdressers, for example, should forget all their usual questions about weekends, holiday plans and the like. They need to opt, instead, for something more on the lines of “Right. You may remember we gave you a Pompadour Fade in our last session. Can you remember any of the arguments for and against that decision? Maybe get some help by taking a look in the mirror?” 

Bar staff in pubs also need to ask teacher-like open-ended questions: “Now, you say you want a glass of your usual, but I want you to think about your choice there. What better options might there be for you? Talk about it with your friend there for three minutes and then we’ll feed back.” 

Coronavirus: decisions based on no sensible logic at all

All of these are, yes, utterly nonsensical scenarios based on no sensible logic at all.

But they are essentially the message suggested by the 8 March full-return decision: that schools are mysteriously safe enough to open fully to 10 million; that schools have some mystical power and are no longer the lethal, ruinous “vectors of transmission” that the prime minister himself was talking about in January. 

This decision could so easily set us all back months. In contrast, a limited return to support our exam students and a continuation of remote learning for others – for just another three weeks beyond 8 March until the Easter break – would help to ensure that a full resumption could be safely brought in afterwards. 

The infection rate would then have a very good chance of continuing to steeple downwards, while the number of people vaccinated will have continued to move rapidly upwards. 

Why take such a huge risk at this stage? For the sake of just three additional weeks? 

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams’s School in Thame, Oxfordshire

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Stephen Petty

Stephen Petty is head of humanities at Lord Williams's School in Thame, Oxfordshire. 

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