Sunday 24 May 2020

Only when it's safe - for mental as well as physical health

In Cumbria yesterday, parents and staff met together in an online meeting to discuss why it is not yet safe to start opening schools to more children. We all left the meeting with a greater understanding and determination to protect the health of staff and students - and that this includes their mental and emotional health as well as the direct risks of coronavirus.

Cumbria is far more than Lake District scenery. It includes towns with high levels of deprivation, including Barrow, the town with the highest rate of reported Covid-19 cases of all. It's also the town where Wendy Jacobs, a primary Headteacher, became an early victim to the virus in March. When a colleague has died, it brings home the fact that the dangers facing staff are real.

Another primary Headteacher explained how she had taken a decision to close her Cumbria school in mid-March, when a child was showing signs of symptoms. Of course, without the community testing that has to be in place for the lockdown to safely end, they still don't know for sure.

But, just because a school is closed to most children, it certainly doesn't mean staff have been taking it easy - or have been 'lazy' as a local MP disgracefully put it. Far from it, as elsewhere, her staff have been working flat out to support their pupils, those in their Hub and those at home. That isn't just teachers, it's support staff, office staff and cleaners too.

Of course Heads and staff worry about the welfare of youngsters, especially those for whom school provides some stability in difficult lives. The Government pretend to share concern about disadvantaged pupils but it has been Heads that have had to act on the fiasco of Free School Meal voucher provision, while the pledge to provide additional laptops for poorer families has been just another broken Government promise.

Schools have stayed open for small numbers precisely to support the children who need help the most. But everyone understood that opening more widely now, especially to the youngest children who most needed physical comforting and were least likely to understand social distancing, was too great a risk. As the BMA, the Independent SAGE group and the NEU's '5 tests' have all made clear, that has to wait until infection rates are lower and reliable test, trace and isolate systems are in place.

Test/trace/isolate - the 'crucial factor' according to 'Independent SAGE' advice

Reading the DfE guidance, it's clear that it was put together by people who have no experience of teaching infants, by advisers who think five and six year-olds learn by sitting separated at their desks all day. A reception teacher explained what a return under this guidance would mean in his school - no sand-tray, no dressing up, no soft toys, no wooden toys, no comfy reading area, bookshelves closed off from children's hands.

Parents need to know that their young children will not be returning to a normal classroom environment. It will be confusing and upsetting. Yet if they need a hug from an adult, those adults are meant to be keeping their distance from them. That's why a parent who works in mental health rightly explained that a return to school in these conditions isn't just risking a 'second spike' of Covid-19, it's also going to risk emotional well-being of staff and children too.

The vital emotional support provided by primary education has been lost under the imposed pressure of national testing and league tables. When schools do return safely, parents and staff need to demand that we don't just go back to what we had before but to a 'recovery curriculum' that makes welfare and well-being a priority.

The meeting agreed that schools should not go back in greater numbers until the NEU '5 tests' have been met. Regrettably, instead of giving a clear lead advising against opening on 1 June, Cumbria County Council's letter to parents says they are leaving it up to individual schools and school clusters to make their own decisions. That could leave a chaotic situation for parents and staff where one child's school is opening further, while another's stays closed.

That's why we agreed to call on parents to keep up pressure on their MPs and councillors, to also write to their Headteachers to bolster their confidence to put safety first and to contact other parents to explain the dangers of their children returning before it's safe to do so.

One useful paragraph in the Cumbria County Council letter states "the government have said that for the duration of the current situation, parents and carers will not be penalised if they decide not to send their children back to school.  So the final decision about whether or not your child attends school is yours". That should give parents confidence to keep their children at home if they are able to do so.

Of course, many parents will be under pressure from their employers to be back in work, now that 'childcare' is supposedly back in place. As everyone recognises, that is all this reckless rush to get more children back in school from 1 June is really all about. That's why, as one parent put it, it's the united actions of school staff through their unions that are key in protecting the safety of staff and their school communities.

We'll be meeting together again on 6th June to see what more needs to be done to oppose a reckless return for more pupils in Cumbria schools before the '5 tests' are in place.

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