The unions have made strict demands, but this is what teachers like me really want in order to return to school

The Undercover Teacher
two children of key workers in lockdown school -  Christopher Furlong/Getty Images Europe

I’ve been teaching in Bristol primary schools for the past decade and am currently not needed as only a handful of key workers’ children are going in. 

As a year six teacher, I assume I will be expected to return to teaching next week but I’m still waiting to hear. Teachers want to return to work if it is safe to do so; certainly all the teachers I know do. We know there will be a risk, we don’t expect it to be completely safe; that’s not possible. But we’ve also been confused and annoyed by the vagueness of the Government plans and the unrealistic expectations of the unions. It’s frustrating that people can’t seem to distinguish between teachers and teaching unions. Most teachers joined a union for protection against disputes at work; the recent headlines paint teachers in a very bad light.

My main concern isn’t about how difficult my return to teaching will make things for my family, though that is a serious consideration and my wife has underlying health issues that make exposure to new germs a concern. My primary worry is all of the unknowns and an increasing expectation to deliver a safe school environment for pupils and staff returning when “safe” may not be a possibility in schools. If you look at the full list of union expectations, it’s impossible to deliver. Even if we take some of the most basic demands, we’re on shaky ground.

Unless you’ve worked in a school environment, you don’t understand how different it is to any other workplace, especially if you’re in a primary school. Adults can understand social distancing guidance and, I hope, stick to it. It’s much easier to enforce in shops, pharmacies and warehouses.

Social distancing is alien territory for schools. But the goal has to be to provide an environment that is as safe as possible for children during the pandemic. Headteachers and deputy headteachers are having to look at guidance and create environments that are fundamentally unsuitable for social distancing, somehow suitable for social distancing. 

They’re not public health professionals and do not necessarily have the know-how to do this. The Government expects full risk assessments and schools are still having to work through all this guidance - and now take into account this long list of union requirements, which is further slowing the process.

The sheer number of measures that the unions have said must be in place for schools to reopen simply cannot be met by June 1.

Like many city schools, ours is an older Victorian-era building. The corridors are really narrow and the rooms are small. We try to get people to stick to the left, but that’s a challenge at the best of times, let alone with social distancing rules. 

Most of our classrooms don’t have an outside door, so keeping a door open is not an option. Schools have been cutting budgets to balance the books and air conditioning certainly doesn’t feature in our classrooms. We’ve got fans but do they help or hinder the spread of the virus?

But before returning to school, we need some realistic plans.

What a Year 6 teacher wants in order to return to school

Some PPE

The staff currently working with key workers children have no PPE, but it’s manageable with a small number of key workers’ children and the entire school building to spread out in. As far as I’m aware, we’re not getting any PPE and the Government has said we don’t need it. I’d certainly like gloves. If kids fall over or injure themselves your instant reaction is to go and help. Without PPE that puts both you and the child at risk.

Teaching in the broader professional context

The union has said we cannot mark books. I'd be happy to mark books - I get packages delivered at home as do many people (online shopping as a proportion of all retail reached a record high of 30.7%last month; clearly mine is not the only household ordering packages). If it’s really a concern, why don’t they just provide us with gloves? That seems a simple solution to that.

No punishing kids for breaking safety rules

The union has called for sanctions for kids breaking the social distancing rules. That is totally unfair. Five-year-olds will be confused. They don’t know what coronavirus is, even if you explain it to them.

Focus on the children, not the politics

Whatever measures we put in place, it's going to be a very strange and unsettling experience for the children. We won’t be delivering the normal curriculum, but will be working with them on emotional resilience, doing what we can to prepare them for a very different school experience. 

The chaos in the debate over the safety of the return to school has left parents feeling confused and vulnerable. People have made this into a political debate, rather than the weighing of health, educational and economic needs. Is it really worth the risk of returning for the sake of a few weeks of weird school? I’m not worried about learning: teachers will catch them up in the autumn. The last few weeks of the final term are much slower-paced anyway - it’s about winding down. 

But the confusion over whether it’s safe to return to school has done great damage to trust between schools and parents and teachers, which is deeply concerning.

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