'We don't need battle cries but ice-cold logic'

The language of war used about reopening schools ignores teachers' very real fears for their safety, writes Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Coronavirus: Heads are faced with a challenge, given government guidance on closing schools, writes Geoff Barton

Seventy-five years ago, the country celebrated victory in Europe after six years of bloody warfare and extreme privations.

This anniversary, coming amid our own crisis in the shape of the coronavirus pandemic, will inevitably be the cue for various articles examining the parallels between the two events.

In truth, however, there are none. The circumstances and challenges are completely different.

I make this point not to be pedantic but because there is a certain brand of language that surrounds the government response to the coronavirus outbreak that is military in tone.

The coronavirus crisis isn't like a war

We are told that the infection is an enemy to be defeated; that this is a battle that is testing our nation in a similar manner to the way in which our forebears were tested in the Second World War.

To my mind, most distasteful of all is talking of patients individually "battling" the disease, "putting up a fight", with the ultimate, contemptible implication being that those who die didn’t fight hard enough.

So let’s keep in mind that this is not a conflict being played out on a battlefield and this is not a time for heroic charges into the teeth of danger.

And now there’s the prospect of schools reopening (I say this knowing, of course, they are already open to some groups of pupils).

We don’t know the date that this will happen yet, but it is widely touted to begin from 1 June, and we expect the prime minister to confirm this or otherwise when he speaks to the nation on Sunday about the plans for easing lockdown.

And I hope everyone is clear that there is an enormous risk attached to schools reopening. That is just a fact, and one which was recognised by both foreign secretary Dominic Raab and Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon in separate comments this week.

There is a risk to the people involved, the staff and pupils who will be in school, and, by extension, their families.

And there is also the wider public risk that reopening schools will cause a spike in the infection rate and lead to a second shutdown.

Managing the risk of reopening schools

Social distancing is extremely difficult in schools – everybody knows that – but it can be maintained to a certain extent by having only small groups of children in at any one time, and doing things like staggering break times, keeping children apart in classrooms and other spaces, and reinforcing these measures with regular hand-washing.

This is what is already happening in some other countries, such as Denmark and China

Another obvious measure is that some children and some adults simply shouldn’t go back to school because they are in high-risk groups, or they live with relatives who are in these groups.

So, we can see that if schools are reopened in a phased manner, with small groups of pupils attending them, and this is backed up with clear guidance from the government on social distancing – maximum class sizes, good practice advice, etc – and extra hand-washing facilities, there is the beginning of a viable plan.

But this is where things get more sticky. Because there are two big unknowns.

Do children spread the virus?

One of these is the extent to which children spread or don’t spread the infection. The science doesn’t seem to be particularly clear on this issue. 

That is unfortunate, because the answer to this question is vital. If children spread the infection anywhere near the rate of adults, then the risk of reopening schools is very much greater.

And aligned to this point is the other unknown: the role of personal protective equipment. Different countries have different approaches to this issue, so, again, there is no unanimity.

But it stands to reason that the higher the infection rate among children, the greater the need for protective equipment.

At the moment, our government dismisses the need for personal protective equipment in schools.

It says that social distancing is enough, and that if any child or adult exhibits symptoms of coronavirus then they should be at home.

But as our schools begin to fill up again, will this really be enough? And don’t we need to be clear on the infection rate among children to answer that question?

We all need answers

I say this not to make life more difficult for the government.

What I am doing is the kind of scenario planning that all education’s leaders will be doing, and spelling out the challenge that lies ahead to make sure that when schools reopen to more groups of pupils, they do so in a manner that inspires the confidence of parents, pupils, and staff.

Because if this doesn’t happen, then they will vote with their feet.

They simply won’t turn up. We’ll effectively be back in the position we were in at the start of this crisis when attendance plunged, and staff self-isolated in large numbers, quickly making it untenable to keep schools open.

So, here’s my plea to the prime minister on Sunday. This is not a war to be won or lost. We don’t need all the sub-Churchillian rhetoric.

This is a public health emergency that requires precision-guided measures, based on robust scientific advice, which inspire and secure public confidence.

The question of the reopening of schools, when that happens, and how it is managed, is pivotal to the national effort, and we have to get this right.

This is a time not for battle cries, but for ice-cold facts and forensic planning.

Our generation’s day of "victory" will not be won by force or persistence, but patience, cautious planning and sensitive, authentic leadership.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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