Normality? We’ll be returning to dystopian abnormality

The government’s plan for reopening schools is likely to return us to the fear, anxiety and frustration of autumn term 2020, says Patrick Moriarty

Patrick Moriarty

Man, standing next to burning building

Perhaps it’s just me, but things seem to have been going rather more smoothly lately. Perhaps the bar of my expectations is low these days but – leaving aside that inexplicable one-school-day Covid jamboree at the beginning of term – the first weeks of the year have felt oddly calm. 

We have a vaccination programme proceeding smoothly and with striking effectiveness; infection, hospitalisation and mortality rates that are declining gently but unmistakably; the promise of two weeks between any new announcement and its implementation; and explicit official caution about moving too fast out of lockdown.

It has all been welcome, if a little unfamiliar, and the stated discipline of being led by “data, not dates” has been a reassuring soundbite.

That’s not to underestimate the massive struggles or the maddening inconsistencies. Attendance in many primary schools has been at levels that owe more to parental desperation (or convenience) than to the demands of safety in a pandemic. In all schools, teachers have been under sustained pressure from the demands of remote and blended learning, and pastoral care. And families everywhere can attest to the toll that ongoing closure is taking on us all – pupils, parents and teachers. 

In the first lockdown, the clamour was for live online lessons. That is now widely offered as standard, yet it is this lockdown that many have said has been the hardest

Schools reopening: some brief safety reminders

Still, we have been managing, helped by what has looked like an outbreak of sobriety and common sense. Monday’s announcement – with its long timespan, its gradual and staged approach, and the five-week spacing to allow for progress to be evaluated – was painted in the same restrained livery. Who wouldn’t want to get on board the good-news train, destined for the sunlit uplands and calling at pubs, hairdressers, family gatherings and all shops to an “incomparably better summer”? 

If we are, indeed, being offered a one-way ticket out of lockdown with a no-returns policy, then terrific. And, of course, it’s right that schools should be the first stop. Just some brief safety reminders, however, before we set off – please listen carefully, even if you’ve heard this several times before. 

Remember that the data on infections and hospitalisations is at roughly the same level that prompted the second lockdown in early November. Yes, they are falling, but that – according to Chris Whitty – is, so far, not because of vaccination but because no one has been going anywhere. 

The highest rate of infection is now among primary-aged children: small wonder, because in many primary schools, it is business as usual. That being the case, we should expect the rates to climb in secondary schools, too, as they reopen.

Remember that, once cases are identified, schools will be back to their role as track-and-trace operatives: lateral flow tests cannot be used as an alternative to that, so dozens of pupils and staff will typically have to isolate each time. 

You may be familiar with the routine, the leadership time it requires, the contortions of teaching to a live and an online class at the same time, the huge cost of supply cover, the frustration for those stuck at home while others are at school. For many, this was worse even than closure, especially when it happened for the third or fourth time in a term.

Coronavirus: risks to teachers

Remember too (please) that, while schools are safe places and Covid presents low risk to children, those children have teachers and parents to whom it continues to present significant risks, and very few of whom have been vaccinated.

Reopening secondary schools returns us to a situation where teenagers and young adults are obliged to mix inside for seven hours a day, in ways which – were they to do them outside the school gate – would be against the law. It may well be a risk worth taking but it is a risk nonetheless, and one that falls, above all, on the adults who work with them. 

Would vaccinating those adults make sense? It would certainly have been a sensible move to win back the support of the profession before reopening. With a rate of vaccinations nudging 500,000 a day at its peak, the entire national school workforce – teaching and support staff – could have been done in the equivalent of two days

Granted, there are others more likely to suffer serious illness or death, which is what has informed the setting of vaccination priorities. Granted, too, that being vaccinated doesn’t, for now, remove the need to isolate when identified as a close contact of a confirmed case. Nonetheless, the power of the vaccine to reassure, to protect and simply to acknowledge the burden that society is placing on teachers, alongside other key workers, is vast.

Last, remember that secondary schools are expected to start testing our pupils and staff as they return. Remember the sigh of relief that we breathed when closure put a stop to the growing headaches about the choreography, the recruitment of a volunteer workforce, the risk of a false negative or a false sense of security, and prepare to inhale again, this time with a swab up your nose. 

And bear in mind that, once it has taken the best part of a week to test an average-sized school, you only have to do it twice more, and there may not be time for that before you close for the holidays. Just saying.

We should rejoice at the scientific ingenuity and the national self-restraint that has allowed infection rates to fall and confidence to rekindle. However, few of the factors that have brought that about will make a difference to the susceptibility of schools to outbreaks, or make them easier to manage or to bear, as we return.

That return is, at least at first, to the sometimes dystopian abnormality of autumn term 2020, with its uncertainty and anxiety, frayed tempers and frustrating restrictions. It will be good to be back. But remember: it is not back to normal yet.

Patrick Moriarty is headteacher of the Jewish Community Secondary School, in the London Borough of Barnet

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Patrick Moriarty

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