Schools across the UK were closed on 20 March to the majority of children, remaining open for only the most vulnerable children and children of key-workers. UNESCO believes over 90% of pupils around the world are now off school as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
No member of school staff wants schools to close, but the safety of staff, children and society more widely has to come first. We know that all of our students, especially the most vulnerable children, rely on us for more than just an education; we provide stability, emotional support and a hot meal. Schools have organised support networks to operate throughout the closure, including providing children with free lunches, and teachers were shown on Newsnight personally delivering them.
The Tory government’s decision to partially close schools came after 50 days of coronavirus in the UK, with 3,983 confirmed cases and 177 deaths. Their failed “herd immunity” strategy relied on keeping schools open – in fact, Boris Johnson even recommended people avoid pubs or seeing friends before closing schools. The estimated 3% impact on the UK’s GDP if schools were closed almost certainly played a role in this decision; capitalism always puts profits before people.
Part of the reason the Tories eventually took the decision to close schools was because staff, pupils and parents had begun to take matters into their own hands. Some schools were forced to close due to unsafe staffing levels because staff were unwell or self-isolating. At the school in which I work, only around 40% of pupils attended in the days leading up to the closure, something that was seen around the country. In a number of schools National Education Union (NEU) reps advised staff not to come into work over safety concerns. The NEU leadership eventually did call for school closures – the next day the government announced them. If the NEU leadership had taken a firmer stance from the beginning and called clearly for closures, the Tories could have been forced to close them sooner, helping to limit the spread of Covid-19 and “flattening the curve”.
Children who have a social worker are still able to attend school, as are the children of key-workers and children with significant SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities). Clearly genuine key-workers should have childcare, but unscrupulous employers have given telesales workers, debt collectors and dog groomers letters claiming that they are key-workers and that their children can therefore go to school!
It is essential that school staff in the trade unions have democratic control over who comes in to school, which should be agreed with other unions. Any member of staff who is in a vulnerable group should be allowed to work from home, workers should have control over staffing rotas to ensure that they are safe, and all agency staff should receive full pay. Teachers should also be given PPE, such as masks and gloves, and hand sanitizer. Over 5,000 education workers have joined the NEU since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, and over 300 have become reps; workers look to their unions in difficult times, and getting organised is the only solution to the problems staff face.
A recent review by researchers at UCL, which concluded that school closures are likely to have little impact in stopping the spread of the virus was reported positively in the mainstream press. A review by Imperial College, which received far less coverage, argued the opposite: that a combined strategy including school closures and social distancing “is the most likely one to ensure that critical care bed requirements would remain within surge capacity”. The Imperial College model further concluded that one third of the spread of Covid-19 would be likely to take place in schools if they remained open. Of course further modelling and research is important, but safety of teachers and children remains paramount: schools should not be re-opened until it is demonstrably safe to do so.
This has been a tough time for all of us, but one thing at my school stood out. A child had heard her teacher say that the shops were empty, and that some shops have disgracefully hiked the prices of necessities like toilet paper. On our last day she turned up with shopping bags for staff, packed full of food and essential items. Our kids and their families understand working-class unity and solidarity. But why are we living in a world where the absolute essentials can be hoarded or price hiked?
Capitalism encourages the worst, most selfish behaviours in humanity – acts of kindness like bringing in shopping for teachers are a ray of light in that darkness. They show the instinctive solidarity of working class people. But ultimately, acts like this should not be necessary. We need a socialist society, in which the big monopolies are owned publicly and our economy planned democratically to meet human need – not the demands of profit. In this way, it would e possible to prioritise the health and well-being of the vast majority in society, and overcome even the very serious threat posed by Covid-19.