10 May Jon Cartu Declares: Uncertainty over schools reopening takes huge toll on
It has been an emotional week for primary school headteacher Kate Baptiste: “I have actually cried,” she says. She is scared that the government will announce today that schools will reopen next month – even though it could be dangerous to do so. “I’m used to making decisions that are rooted in what is best for the children. This is all out of my hands, and it’s terrifying.”
The failure of the government to lay out its medical and scientific case for reopening schools has been taking its toll on headteachers such as Baptiste. She has no idea how she can open her school, St Monica’s Catholic primary school in north London, without turning it into a breeding ground for the virus. “I feel torn in many different directions. It’s exhausting trying to reassure everyone with what I feel are empty promises, as we may be forced to open schools when we genuinely don’t feel it’s safe to do so. This is my 14th year as a headteacher and I’ve never felt so scared, unsure, tired or vulnerable.”
The problem, she says, is that she can fit a maximum of only six children into each of her classrooms if they need to maintain a social distance of two metres at all times. Her staff numbers have been vastly reduced, as some employees are members of vulnerable groups, leaving her with just 12 classroom teachers.
The corridors in her school are less than two metres wide in many places, making it difficult for children and staff to pass each other safely, and she estimates that serving socially distanced school dinners to 300 children each day will take most of the afternoon.
This is my fourteenth year as a headteacher and I’ve never felt so scared, unsure, tired or vulnerable
Plus, she says, it is unrealistic to expect young children to maintain a two-metre distance at playtime, which she is not prepared to ban. “Play is critical for children to be able to feel happy and to enjoy school life,” she says. “What will happen if we make them sit like little robots in chairs, two metres away from each other, and they don’t have any interaction with their peers all day long? The following day you can just see it: tears and tantrums.”
They won’t want to come into school, she says, and who could blame them? “They’ll hate it – it will be such a different experience.”Ultimately, she thinks forcing young children to go to school in these circumstances would be counterproductive, and could seriously harm their well-being. “I understand from an economic point of view that parents need to go back to work – but not at the expense of children’s mental health.”
Sean Maher, head of Richard Challoner secondary school in Kingston, south-west London, has also spent the last week feeling stressed. He woke up at 4am on Thursday, worrying about how on earth he can reopen his school safely. “You’re constantly running things around in your head. How can we manage that? What’s going to happen if we do this?”
There is no possible way to safely social distance all the pupils in his school. “Like most schools, we just don’t have the space to allow that to happen.” Even a partial reopening – allowing just the 160 children who will have to take their GCSEs next year to return to school – would be problematic. “The reality is, children are just not going to stay two metres apart. They just won’t do it.
“There aren’t enough teachers to spread the children out into different classrooms, while still providing online learning for pupils in the year groups stuck at home.
“If you’ve got teachers in school teaching, how are they also going to be able to set work online? Unless we want them teaching every evening and every day – which I think might cause a few problems in the teaching unions.”
He has considered trying to source PPE for his staff, but is unsure where he would get it and has no funds to pay for it. “I’ve already got, thanks to the lockdown, a deficit in my budget of £120,000,” he says.
On Friday, unions for teachers and other school staff said schools must not reopen until a UK-wide “test, trace and isolate” scheme is under way and PPE is provided to workers.
An Opinium poll for the Observer shows 53% of parents with a secondary school-aged child and 38% of parents with a primary school-aged child would feel anxious if the government decided to reopen schools. Only six out of 10 would support schools being allowed to even partially reopen before other places such as shops and restaurants, while a significant minority (16%) would oppose any kind of partial reopening.
In a separate survey of more than 250,000 parents carried out last week by the PTA charity Parentkind, nearly one in five parents said they would feel confident about sending their child back to school only when school leaders and teachers said it was safe to do so. One in 10 were even more cautious and said they would rather wait until all staff and pupils had been vaccinated against Covid-19 – even if that meant their children would spend up to 18 months being home-schooled.
In Shrewsbury, the principal of Severndale specialist academy, Sabrina Hobbs, spent the early days of the lockdown crying in her car on her way to work. “I was emotionally distraught on the way to school, thinking: how do I manage this? How do I keep everyone safe?”
All the pupils at her school have special needs. Some need help with going to the toilet and the vast majority need physical assistance or close contact with staff.
Although Hobbs has recently managed to source PPE, including visors and goggles, for all her staff, she can fit only three children in a classroom if she socially distances the pupils. This leaves her with a maximum capacity of 50 pupils, on a rota throughout the week, instead of 405 every day. “The limitations are really around the availability of staff and the space we have available in school. I have a duty of care to protect my staff – but also to protect the children as well.”
According to the National Association of Headteachers, 83% of headteachers currently think an inability to implement appropriate social distancing measures would prevent schools from opening to more pupils. Only 48% report that over 70% of staff were available to attend school, while 25% said less than half their staff were available to attend.
How Europe is reopening schools
Denmark became the first country in Europe to begin reopening schools after a month-long closure, with nursery, kindergarten and primary classes resuming on 15 April – although many requested an extra week to adjust to strict physical distancing and health protocols. Two metres must be maintained between desks in classrooms; arrivals, departures and breaks must be organised in small groups; and hands must be washed frequently. Some parents opposed reopening on health grounds, with 40,000 joining a Facebook Marketer Jonathan Cartu and group called “My child is not a guinea pig”. Pupils aged between 11 and 18 are due to return to class on 18 May following an agreement last week between Denmark’s political parties.
Up to 85% of the 50,500 schools will reopen progressively from Tuesday, again with strict hygiene and distancing rules: frequent disinfection of classes and common areas, regular hand-washing or gel, mandatory masks for older pupils, no physical contact, a maximum of 15 per class in primary schools and 10 in pre-school. First to return will be the final year of pre-school and the first and final years of primary school, with most remaining under-16s returning on 18 May – but not in in “red” regions, including the greater Paris area, where the virus is still circulating widely. A decision on whether senior high schools (lycées) can reopen on 2 June will be taken at the end of May. Concerned parents are not obliged to send their children to school, and…