OPINION: Three things schools really need from the government to deal with Covid changes

Laptops that were promised in spring to assist home learning and have still not materialised, says T

Laptops that were promised in spring to assist home learning and have still not materialised, says The Secret Teacher. Picture: Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Secret Teacher says schools have been let down on a number of issues this year

So far in my column, I have avoided political commentary, choosing instead to focus on what life is like in school and how the children are coping with the challenges of pandemic education. But for us as teachers, the government’s intervention (and lack of it) is a key factor in our working lives.

Last week, the Department for Education published this covering statement for their latest guidance document:

“Research shows that closing schools would have a negative impact on children and young people’s mental health and development. We are prioritising their education and wellbeing by keeping schools open.”

On the face of it, this sounds like a supportive statement that many families would agree with: most of us want our children to stay in school for their education, for their social lives, and for their sense of routine and productivity, which aids their wellbeing.

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But the claim that the government has been “prioritising education” by “keeping schools open” has been met with dismay from teachers. Yes, most schools are open, but for the government to imply this is due to their efforts is simply inaccurate.

For those not working in a school setting, it may be assumed that the government are providing adequate investment or support to cope with the changes, but this would be a woefully misleading impression.

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For example, part of the guidance for schools fully reopening was related to hand hygiene, with increased washing and use of sanitiser. This was sensible advice that no-one would dispute. However, in September the primary schools in my area received two bottles of sanitiser each from the government. This has been the only contribution that the government has made to support schools in maintaining hand hygiene.

Our costs related to Covid are vast. Each child has a minimum of six occasions each day that they wash or sanitise (on arrival, before and after break and lunch, and on departure) aside from usual bathroom use and additional times as needed. We are using sanitiser, soap and paper towels at a hugely increased rate, all of which has an impact on schools’ tight budgets.

Each classroom has required additional equipment to be “Covid safe”, such as lidded pedal bins, sanitation areas and supplies of PPE.

Cleaning of schools is thorough, which has led to an increase in use of cleaning materials and paid cleaning hours. Each teacher who quarantines for two weeks has to be covered by a costly supply teacher, most of which is not covered by insurance. Our heating bills have greatly elevated as we try to keep rooms and pupils warm enough, despite the constantly open windows.

All of these costs are met from school’s existing budgets, a situation which is placing a great financial burden on schools, and which the Department of Education is happy to be kept out of the spotlight.

Another role that the DfE have is that of providing guidance. During a year like this, schools welcome sensible and supportive guidance, given in advance. But unfortunately, this is not what we have received. Similarly to the government’s many U-turns on their Covid policy and instructions to other industries, their guidance has frequently been last minute and contradictory.

As schools planned a partial reopening from June 1, the DfE only released their guidance on the evening before May half term, leaving schools with no working days to make the necessary preparations. Many schools (including my own) had to bin their carefully thought out plans and instead work through half term to make new plans.

The long awaited guidance for the full reopening of schools arrived on the evening of Friday August 29, just before the bank holiday weekend – again, leaving no working days for schools to adapt to their proposals.

Recently, our colleagues in secondary schools received notification of compulsory mask wearing in communal areas less than 24 hours before the November lockdown began.

To support our classes as smoothly and safely as possible, we need time to prepare for and implement changes.

For times when remote learning is necessary, disadvantaged pupils also need the laptops which the government claimed it was providing during the national lockdown.

Some pupils are facing the prospect of further hardships if their bubble is sent home and they cannot access their learning. Schools have a legal requirement to provide remote learning, but how can children access this without a laptop? Many households possess only one device, often a parent’s mobile phone, and often shared with siblings. This is not adequate for their needs and the government needs to honour their pledge to support these young people. Instead, schools were informed last month that their laptop allocation has been reduced by around 80%.

So these are the things that schools need from our government:

1. An emergency fund to help towards Covid costs. Our usual budgets are needed to pay for staff, resources, and running costs of the premises. If we greatly increase Covid spending, then one of the other areas will be reduced, impacting the children’s education further.

2. Timely guidance. Schools need to be informed of significant changes at least a (working) week before they are expected to happen.

3. The laptops that were promised in spring to assist home learning, and that have still not materialised.

Without this, pupils are facing further struggles for the year ahead.

The Secret Teacher has been teaching at an East Anglian primary school for more than 15 years

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