I, like many others, have been affected by school closures. I am part of ‘generation Covid’: the group whose exams were fumbled by the government, whose grades were awarded based on a flawed algorithm, and whose university experience has been ground to a halt by lockdown. Mental health problems among students are at an all-time high, with Young Minds reporting that 80% of young people felt their mental health had been worsened by the pandemic. However, whilst I completely understand the desire to get back in the classroom, it must not happen too soon.
The risk posed to staff, students, and the wider community
Schools and universities, as demonstrated in September and October, are breeding grounds for Covid-19. The Prime Minister himself admitted schools act as ‘vectors for transmission’. Looking at infection rates, it is relatively easy for one to identify the fact the spike we are currently suffering the impacts of began with the return of schools and universities. A study by the Telegraph revealed rates of Covid-19 in university towns were ‘over 40% higher than the rest of the UK,’ and a study published on Gov UK highlighted that ‘Covid-19 infection rates among students and staff in schools were linked to those found in the wider community.’
There have been many arguments to suggest that social distancing measures in the classroom are effective. However, having two teachers as parents, I have witnessed hours of phone calls due to positive tests among children and staff, despite all guidelines being followed. It is unwise for schools to be reopened four weeks before the Easter holidays, inevitably creating mass spreader events and putting even more pressure on an already struggling NHS.
Furthermore, the government has a responsibility to protect its teachers, who have so often been overlooked throughout this pandemic, despite their tireless work. Bringing schools back, especially without vaccinating teachers, will put vulnerable individuals at risk and cause unnecessary suffering for families. More time is needed in order for the vaccine rollout to be effective. The mass vaccination of teaching staff should also be made a priority form when schools eventually do return, in order to provide as safe an environment as possible.
The flaws of the ‘catch up’ plan
The potential plan to lengthen school days and take weeks off the summer holidays also shows poor judgement. Teachers and students alike are exhausted – both physically and mentally – from the pressure of the pandemic. Contrary to popular belief, learning has not ground to a halt. Instead, it has gotten more complicated with individuals staring at screens for hours at a time. Any claim of ‘catching up’ is redundant; students clearly cannot learn effectively under these circumstances.
The plan for extension also hits a roadblock with the contracts of teaching staff. The majority of teaching staff are already working maximum hours, so legally cannot work over the summer. Schoolsweek estimated that if every secondary school in England ran an extra class for just 100 pupils without using existing staff, they would potentially need over 21,000 additional teachers, highlighting how the plan for extra classes is simply not viable. Instead, the government should consider shortening the syllabus for exams, and possibly reforming the already unfair existing GCSE exam system, allowing students a better chance to achieve their potential.
It is imperative that the opening of schools be delayed until at least after the Easter holidays in order to buy time for the vaccine campaign to take effect. Teachers deserve respect and protection, and parents deserve the peace of mind knowing that their children are not at risk of bringing home coronavirus. Children need to be back in the classroom, spending time with friends and learning, but not at the expense of their own health, and the health of those around them. Holidays are also important for students and staff alike in order for people to recover from the challenges posed by this year.