As schools return, I know that there are mixed emotions. Some eager to get back into class and see friends, others are more nervous. It has been a long time, a lot has happened since, even if confined to the house. If a week is a long time in politics, a day is an age for a young person.
People are worried about the spread of infection. For teachers and support staff, their leaders have a duty of care to ensure that they are safe, but with cramped classrooms, poor ventilation and so many people suddenly in school all at once, they have genuine concerns. Young people do not want to bring Covid19 home after a year of keeping well and remain worried about becoming ill themselves.
Parents are weighing up the risks too.
This is why I have supported the teaching unions call for a phased return and rotas, so school can resume in a manageable way, enable pupils being in school, but keeping everyone safe. Labour has further called for Nightingale Classrooms, so pupils can socially distance. I was interested in York Press’ recent article about the outdoor school in Fulford, and this certainly could provide some solutions on warmer, sunnier days. The UK has the highest density of pupils per class than anywhere in Europe, this cannot be ignored.
Testing will be testing. It is invasive and uncomfortable for a few moments. But to comply and keep on complying with testing will be challenging. I have already had one case where someone tested positive with their home test, LFT (lateral flow test), and yet negative at the testing centre PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test. They still have to isolate, missing valuable time from school.
We need compliance as the LFT regime is a good way of identifying community transmission, but it will not be without challenges.
Then there is mask wearing. My schools meeting showed how the ‘to wear or not to wear’ debate will have rolled out this week in schools. The point of agreement was that no-one likes wearing a mask. In early years and with special educational needs, teachers’ facial expressions have an important role to play. In older years, the faces of students provide crucial feedback.
However the thought of being behind a mask all day is challenging. The science also. If a mask is worn, it will build up moisture. We know that through moisture there can be a holding of infection and disease. So wearing a mask for such long periods does carry risks. On the other hand it provides a barrier and reduces transmission risk, for a certain period of time, whatever that period is deemed to be. With social distancing, they would not be needed, except in communal spaces, so the rush to get everyone back at the same time has forced this debate. If mask hygiene is not followed, or the mask covers just the mouth, or even just the chin, then there are other risks.
But risk doesn’t stop at the school gates. Young people need to get to school. Many children rely on public transport to take them to school, mixing with different bubbles and different year groups, and in some cases pupils from different schools.
Then there is human behaviour. It is near impossible to keep little ones apart. They don’t understand why or how. They are like magnets drawn together. If it is hard for the younger children to keep apart, then it is near impossible for teenagers. They too want to do what is normal. To gather, wrestle, hug and hang out, without getting a tape measure to check their 2m distancing.
So this is going to be challenging. With summer on its way, the challenges will ease. Classroom windows can be opened and the vaccine is on its way to keep adults safe.
Labour called for teachers to be vaccinated over half term. It was the obvious thing to do, apart from the Government disagreed. I have specifically asked the Vaccine Minister if he will enable teachers and support staff to be vaccinated next. He said that people will need to be vaccinated in their age groups which are 40 – 49, a ten year group, but how this is prioritised will be down to local flexibility.
I have therefore asked if York can flex their plans enough to make this happen.
Perhaps the biggest question has been over the end of year assessments. First the Government wanted exams for all and were adamant this was non-negotiable. Then on the eve of the BTEC exams, colleges were given local flexibility as to whether or not they went ahead. Then we had exams cancelled, then tests introduced, and now the Government have said that teacher based assessments will be used, but there is local flexibility as to the evidence that is gathered to justify grades. They even went as far as to say that they trusted teachers, which must be a first.
Schools must clearly set out how they will assess each student. The methodology will need to be equality impact assessed and ensure that it is stress tested to address unconscious bias to or away from a student so does not cannot discriminate. Should there be concern from young people, parents or staff, there needs to be a learning culture to understand the issues and to mitigate against them. Finally they must be fairly moderated.
Most important of all, we need to understand what recovery looks like. Young people have had an emotionally testing year, many have experienced mental wellbeing challenges for the first time, others have had their wellbeing further impacted. Recovery cannot mean “catch up” if we first don’t understand what the need is for every child and young person.
For some, a game of football will be all they need, for others, they will require significant support. First building stability and routine and then recovering the holistic loss of the last year, emotional as well as subject content, will be important. I certainly do not support pupils staying late, over weekends or during school holidays. These times are still precious and pupils will need them more than “boot camps” as the Minister has called for. In the longer term, I believe that there needs to be a serious review of the whole school curriculum to ensure that it is well balanced, as are the needs of young people.
I recently raised these very issues in Parliament, during the Education, Route Map: Covid 19 debate.
My full contribution can be found at the link below –
Schools need to invest in the wellbeing of every child as a priority. Getting this wrong will be costly. Other children may have experienced loss during the last year due to Covid19, or not being able to visit a grandparent or other close family. They will need space to process the impact of this. Others, sadly have faced trauma in the home. We cannot shy away from the fact that incidences of domestic violence have increased and home isn’t a safe place for every child.
Others will be anxious, stressed, depressed or have lost confidence. We need a holistic agenda of arts and sport to help young people recover, as well as spaces to talk and share. Schools need the resources to meet the complex needs of all in their care.
For teachers, they too have need. They have worked round the clock with barely a break and are exhausted. They have had to learn how to teach digitally while simultaneously being in class. They have had to adapt to the hundreds of pieces of guidance that have been served up by Government at the last minute and have had their own health to protect. On top of this, they will be home-schooling, caring for sick relatives and facing the challenges we all have had to cope with this last year.
Finally, we need to listen. Parents, students and staff will all have issues; all need to be heard. I am listening too. This next step is not without challenge and conflicts. We need to make sure that where these arise, that they are dealt with sufficiently. Actively engaging the whole school community will be the mark as to whether this next period will be successful or not.