Ensuring schools are safe has been one of the greatest challenges of the pandemic, and with schools set to go back today, the outlook is not promising. So who is responsible, and what can be done about it?
The obvious take is that the government alone are to blame. And while of course the government is indeed responsible for the safety or lack thereof at schools, the opposition did not put nearly enough pressure on the Prime Minister to act with safety in mind. Indeed, Labour did the contrary, and defied unions by demanding the government had children back in school by September no matter what. Rather than pressuring the government to find safe ways to return students to school in a timely manner, the move essentially gave the government a blank cheque to reopen schools without any safety in place at all.
The government originally advised against using masks in schools – the reason being that it would make students uncomfortable to see their teachers in masks, and also that students cannot be made to wear masks themselves. However, this argument falls apart particularly in secondary schools, where children are old enough to surely not be made uncomfortable by staff in masks, and also old enough to be made to wear masks themselves. In their latest u-turn, the government have advised that it is at the schools’ discretion as to who wears a mask, unless the school is in an area of local lockdown, in which case it will be mandatory for students and staff to wear facemasks in communal areas such as corridors.
In primary schools, the situation is similar – it is entirely at the discretion of schools as to who needs to wear a facemask and when; the difference is that this advice does not change if a primary school is caught in a local lockdown. The government’s initial advice on face masks does hold some more water at a primary school – students as young as four probably cannot practically be made to wear a face mask. However, for older years, particularly students aged eleven, it is much easier to get students to wear face masks.
Furthermore, the government’s argument that staff should not wear masks does not hold at all at primary schools, as these students who the government believed may be perturbed by teachers wearing a face mask are seeing many people, often including parents/guardians, wearing face masks daily in a variety of settings, and there have not been any reports of widespread disturbance among young people because of this.
Even with new rules on face coverings, the situation is still bleak for schools. Internationally, many reports have come in of outbreaks in schools. In Georgia, USA, a photograph of a crowded school went viral online, and days later a number of cases were linked to the same school. Outbreaks in Israeli schools made headlines around the world, as 240 schools were forced to close following 2,000 teachers and students falling ill. The outbreak linked to the reopening of schools still rages in Israel, with the country having one of the highest per capita cases of coronavirus in the world.
In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the rules for schools are different to that in England, and set by devolved administrations. In Scotland, schools have already gone back, and despite stricter rules than will be implemented in England, an outbreak at a school in Dundee has already affected seventeen staff and two students, with more than 100 self-isolating.
Schools being closed also has a huge impact on children’s health though. Many students have been unable to escape difficult homes since March, and all students have been set behind considerably on their education. These have lifelong consequences for children. This perhaps explains why the reopening of schools is a risk both major parties believe is worth taking. However, this does not stop deep concern among unions, staff and students. Opening schools could be the thing that pushes our currently steady case numbers into exponential growth.
Jack Harrison is a political blogger and student at the University of Cambridge. He was the author of the blog Minority 2017 from 2017 to 2019. He can be found on Twitter @JackH1010.