At the beginning of this month, schools and colleges fully reopened for the first time since March, when they were closed to all but children of key workers.
Trade unions – recognising the detrimental effect of the closure of schools and other educational institutions on the progress of pupils and students – supported this proposal, so long as it was done safely.
Unfortunately, but predictably, the Tories refused to engage seriously with the trade unions. Consequently the reopening of schools has been anything but safe.
Many measures are now in place in society to minimise the risk of transmission of COVID-19: social distancing; the wearing of face masks; and, recently, a limit of six for meeting in groups.
None of these things, however, are guaranteed in the guidelines published by the Department of Education in relation to schools.
To reduce the mixing of pupils, it is proposed that students are kept in ‘bubbles’. In secondary schools, this will be whole year groups, which are to be kept separate from other year groups. This is over one hundred pupils in most secondary schools.
This may seem sensible in theory. But practically it is deeply flawed.
Firstly, despite the best efforts of schools and management teams, pupils will often come into contact with those from other bubbles through the course of the school day – during breaks, in transitions between lessons, and when using common areas such as dining halls and toilets.
Secondly, many pupils will have siblings in the same school who are in different bubbles. So when they get home, the bubbles burst.
Thirdly, pupils from different bubbles will often travel on public transport at the same time.
Just dropped the eldest off at school. Saw four buses packed with kids pull up. Those kids will now go to their “bubbles” all day. Absolutely pointless— Chris Holme (@chrisholme1983) September 17, 2020
Fourthly, teachers in secondary schools will go between bubbles throughout the day, since lessons must be delivered by subject specialists.
Regarding teachers and other members of staff, the DoE guidance states:
“Ideally, adults should maintain 2 metre distance from each other, and from children. We know that this is not always possible… but if adults can do this when circumstances allow that will help.”
In other words: we know it is sensible to socially distance at all times. But this will not be possible – so just do it as much as you can!
One would think that face coverings would possibly be a solution, where social distancing is not possible.
However, when pressed for a clear position on this, the government essentially shirked its responsibility. Instead, they have given individual headmasters the right to decide on the use of face covering in each school. Policy therefore varies from school to school.
Furthermore, within the classroom, the guidance states that: “Face coverings would have a negative impact on teaching and their use in the classroom should be avoided.”
So despite their health benefits, face coverings must not be used.
When questioned by journalists about the shortcomings of their guidance, the Tory government has invariably repeated that young children are extremely unlikely to develop serious symptoms. In fact, most will be asymptomatic. And so, they say, criticism is unfounded.
But schools without teaching and non-teaching staff are not schools. And all of these workers are at risk of catching the virus and developing serious – and possibly fatal – symptoms.
And when pupils return home after school, they will also be mixing with family members who are at far higher risk than themselves.
Furthermore, precisely because younger people are generally asymptomatic, it is highly likely that there will be frequent and violent outbreaks beyond the school gates. There are signs that this is already taking place across the country, paving the way for a second wave.
Profits vs lives
Ironically, the shortcomings of these proposals will ensure that the Tory government will not achieve its nominal goal of reopening schools.
Of course, the real aim is not so much the reopening of schools for the benefit of students’ education – but freeing up parents (workers) to go back to work and create profits for the bosses.
Until now, many parents have had to stay at home to take care of their children. The coronavirus outbreaks that are guaranteed to occur because of the Tories’ flawed plans mean that not only will we see a second wave wash over Britain, but that schools will not be fully open for much longer.
Already, many schools have had to close and pupils have been forced to reisolate, highlighting the serious problems with the government’s rushed and reckless strategy.
We cannot trust the Tories with our health and safety. Their primary concern will always be the capitalists’ profits, not our lives.
To safely reopen schools, in a sustainable way, the labour movement must demand that:
- Teaching unions be put in control, to put together a practical, sustainable plan – with the help of healthcare professionals and scientific experts – that will enable schools to open, and to remain open.
- Educational institutions be provided with the funding needed to take all the steps required to ensure the safety of students and staff, along with the communities they belong to.
- A public national childcare programme be established, in order to provide free and safe childcare for essential workers and those who cannot work from home.
Above all, we need to fight for a socialist alternative to this capitalist chaos. Only with a socialist economic plan, based on workers’ control and management, can we ensure that schools and workplaces are reopened safely – driven by the needs of the many, and not the profits of the few.