News of the first Covid vaccine moved me to tears. Hearing the report during the dark drive home from school, I found myself weeping with relief, exhaustion and gratitude.
We mustn’t, of course, get ahead of ourselves, even with this week’s announcement of a second vaccine: there are questions to answer, tests to do, licences to be granted, roll-outs to plan.
But, after these long months of pleading that someone would just make it stop, it was wonderful to savour the return of hope, the triumph of human ingenuity and the power of collective scientific endeavour.
Perhaps there was some nostalgia behind those tears, too: such ideals and achievements sound almost quaint, after the battering of recent years, which has forced expertise, truth and social cohesion on to the defensive in the public square. It’s so good to see them back, and to dare to believe they might order our world and our experience again: here, at last, is the possibility of healing for both our individual bodies and our common life.
Coronavirus: Could vaccination be the next skirmish?
But that public square has been changed by the culture wars that have been fought there, so we should tread cautiously.
One potential casualty in those wars is the very notion of a mass vaccination programme. Even as some hail the medical breakthrough, others may spot a conspiracy of malign science and big pharma, intent on duping us into fear, covering up side effects and maximising profit.
Extreme anti-vaxxers are a small minority, but plenty more people will have reservations. They have seen too many movies not to think twice before obeying a global governmental programme to inject a large proportion of the population.
Children from all these families will be in our schools, and vaccination could turn out to be the next skirmish.
Vaccines and the right to education
The issues are interesting. Schools routinely enforce standards of behaviour, and remove from the community, either temporarily or permanently, individuals who pose a risk to others or to the values of the school.
The terminology of “exclusion” is chosen to make exactly this point, and sometimes it has to be done even though we know a child was not fully in control of their actions. If this applies to offensive language or violence, then a case could be made that refusing to be immunised poses similar risks.
France and Italy have taken a version of this line in relation to the right to education. Facing a worrying decline in rates of vaccination, and rising cases of the illnesses they had almost eradicated, both countries have made the full suite of childhood vaccinations a precondition of a state-funded education.
The UK has maintained higher rates of vaccination, and such a move has not so far seemed necessary here. Since we do not insist on even the MMR – which gives securely attested protection against three far more deadly illnesses – then we must be some way off doing it in relation to Covid-19.
Even without those higher rates, the argument sits uneasily in the UK context – above all because schools here embody a different relationship between individual and group.
Despite all the culture wars, diversity still has a particular place here, seen not just in the bewildering variety of school types (try explaining them to a foreigner and you will see my point), but also in the cultures that typically exist within them.
The impulse to cherish difference
Characteristic in the DNA of British schools – including, in my experience, some of the most religious ones – is the impulse to cherish the different and to expect others to do the same. We bear each other’s burdens and oddities – at least as far as we can – and when we exclude children, it is often because they have refused to include others.
For all the inbuilt paradoxes, and, of course, many failures in practice, this is an approach that has integrity and generosity at its heart. It both reflects and creates the kind of society we are.
Having said that, the pandemic has had an impact on the parental psyche that we cannot yet know. The experience of contact tracing may give some pause for thought. It is a tribute to the place of schools in the social ecosystem that families have accepted the imposition of isolation on our say so. They may rail against the restrictions, but only a few have questioned schools’ decisions.
The story on social media is, however, not so happy, with some parents seeking to identify and pillory families whose children have tested positive and sent their peers into isolation. Not letting the facts get in the way of a good witch hunt, they have let rip in some cases even against children themselves. If vicious keyboard warfare can break out over that, what might happen when there’s a vaccine that some have had and others refused?
The arrival of viable vaccines brings hope that we can combat the Covid-19 virus. But other threats to community life are available, just as contagious and undermining of health.
The pandemic has proven a breeding ground for anxiety, fear and blame, and schools will continue to find ourselves keeping the peace on the front line between the needs of the collective and the rights of the individual.
Perhaps that is the deeper reason why we are being asked to stay open through the pandemic: it is so that we model the standards of integrity and decency that our society needs to get through it.
Patrick Moriarty is the headteacher of the Jewish Community Secondary School (JCoSS), in the London borough of Barnet