'Let's face reality – schools will end up closing'

There is a feeling of dread in schools – teachers can see closure coming, but no one will listen, says Patrick Moriarty

Patrick Moriarty

Coronavirus schools

A swirl of emotions circulates in schools, as term resumes this week. Some of them are age-old: that mix of joy, self-doubt, fear and exhilaration that first drew us into teaching, and spurs us on each term. 

Some are more recent arrivals. There's a growing, dejected despair of ministerial competence and integrity, as memories harden from the summer’s endless and avoidable missteps. There are the baffling and overwhelming regulations, the last-minute changes of direction, the chaos of exam results. The sheer cavalier disrespect of it all.

But there is a new and more menacing emotion now: dread. It’s not uncontrolled or endemic (although there are moments of hysteria), but it is brewing and stewing. 

It is fuelled by more than the growing Covid statistics across the community, and particularly in older secondary school students; by more than the prospect of endless uncertainty that teachers must adjust to, at the same time as enabling students to do the same; by more than the simple fear of getting ill. All of those are real and unsettling enough – but this is deeper.

Coronavirus: The single-minded policy of keeping schools open

The dread comes from realising that schools are being held captive by a policy mantra that is in flight from the facts. The determination to keep schools and colleges open, no matter what, is so single-minded and heedless of consequence that it’s starting to get frightening.

It looks good, in a “not on my watch” sort of way, but mantra is becoming mania as the practicalities and people who make up schools are being factored out of consideration. 

There isn’t a teacher or school leader who doesn’t agree with the sentiment, of course: we all want to be open, because we know it’s what works. The power of face-to-face interaction, the human chemistry of the classroom, the myriad benefits that flow unconsciously when we see students each day – those are all threatened when students have to learn at home.

We know how ghastly it was in the summer, how terrifyingly social and educational gaps yawned, how wellbeing ebbed away. Many of us saw it first-hand, as parents as well as professionals.

Supply teachers filling in the gaps

So keeping schools open is, of course, a good thing, but decreeing it as an absolute only shows that you have missed the point. Groups are distressed when friends and teachers get sick, and absent staff cannot simply be replaced by supply cover, however competent.

Changes of face upset dynamics – fine for a day or two, but motivation soon drops when lesson after dwindling lesson is covered by strangers. Cover staff need paying, too, and 10 a day (we are close to that in my school already) costs £10,000 a week – even assuming that we can get hold of them.

And, having pulled off that unlikely and unaffordable feat, who will balance the boat if key leaders are at home, ill or isolating? Again, it may be fine in the short term – but what happens when, with the leadership team two-thirds depleted, the fifth new positive student case in two days is reported just as three members of staff receive instructions to isolate? 

Rapid and authoritative decisions need making to identify and isolate scores of contacts, and get them taken home. That isn’t simply a mechanical function – it requires knowledge of the school community, the layout of classrooms, the shape of the curriculum. There’s no such thing as a supply school leader – and students and colleagues will quickly feel the lack.

Schools are going to end up closing

All of this points to a reality that, to judge from the headteacher groups I belong to, everyone knows is coming: schools are going to end up closing. Certainly, individual schools, and very probably all schools in some areas. 

Simply as a matter of practicality, unless something extraordinary happens to the trajectory of the pandemic, cases will continue to rise and schools will have to shut. Even if we can squeak by another day with the staff numbers, we cannot sustain the contact tracing, the unpredictability, the disruption to learning, the containment of others’ anxiety, the projection of others’ anguish, the overwhelming grief. 

Yet the Keep Schools Open juggernaut slouches inexorably on. As does the nightmarish dread: we see closure coming, we could help make it bearable, but no one will listen

As with closure in March, the cancellation of public exams in April, the delayed reopening in June, the ditching of the algorithm in August, the denials grow ever more strident while the counterfactual evidence mounts. 

The government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies estimates that closing schools and universities would reduce the Covid-19 R (reproduction) number by 0.5 each – a gigantically greater contribution to virus control than closing pubs or shops. No surprise there: in a school community of 1,500, 20 cases (already not uncommon) represents 1,300 cases per 100,000. 

So why make it non-negotiable that young people and their teachers are exposed every day to levels of risk that, the minute they leave the building, would be an arrestable offence? There could scarcely be a better way to supplant trust with defiance and dread.

The reality is surely coming: so let schools plan for it like the responsible human communities that we are. Let us make our decisions locally, confident of official support rather than state-enabled public shame. Let us deploy the remote learning that we have put in place for precisely this scenario. Let us prepare students, staff and families for it, mitigate it, be creative in managing it. Let’s do it soon, so we can keep it short.

Let us model, for a society gripped by dread, what it looks like to learn from experience, not run away from it. That, after all, is what schools are for.

Patrick Moriarty is the headteacher of the Jewish Community Secondary School (JCoSS), in the London borough of Barnet

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