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Teachers Work in Fear of Infection Dangers in Their Crowded Classrooms

Published on: 18 Jan, 2021
Updated on: 18 Jan, 2021

It is “not always possible for teachers to avoid being close to students,” says one Surrey teacher (image is illustrative only)

Students sat “cheek by jowl” in the classroom with no obligation to wear a mask, while outside they were “high-fiving and hugging as normal’” Two Surrey residents share their experience of working as secondary school teachers in a pandemic. Names have been changed for anonymity.

By Julie Armstrong

local democracy reporter

When “Sally” hears Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock tell the nation “schools are safe”, she wants to scream at the telly.

She, like half of her school department, caught Covid in December, before the move on January 5 to remote learning for most.

No one can determine where she was infected, but she feels more could and should have been done by the government to protect teachers.

“The government’s experiment of keeping schools open without proper support for heads and councils to manage the risk properly, coupled with the new strain, have seen students and teachers led to the slaughterhouse,” she said.

“Actually, teenagers do spread the disease, so I don’t think schools are safe.

“In September, we all got back to normal very quickly in schools, and nothing was normal. I think we should have [had a rota-based] term.

“It was business as usual with the exams, the pressures, the timings, with the amount of bodies in the building. The heat was still on.

“I said to my colleagues more than once, “There’s a pandemic at the doorstep; I feel lots of people are forgetting that’.”

Sally, who lives in Surrey but works in London, has even considered leaving the profession as a result.

“The emails from my colleagues I share a socially-distanced office with were pouring in at quite a rate; five out of 12 colleagues now positive,” she said. “It was quite a nerve-racking time to be a teacher.

“When I was sick before Christmas, I didn’t want to have to go back to teach again. I was really angry with the situation, because my family had been put in danger as well.

“I don’t think we can have classrooms as full as they were.”

“Steve”, who teaches in Surrey, agrees class numbers should be reduced when schools reopen and said it was normal for teachers to have five classes of 30 students each day, potentially an exposure to 150 people.

“There are solutions, if they plan early enough,” he said.

Online teaching

He wants to see an alternating week-on, week-off rota system to halve class sizes, recommended months ago by the National Education Union (NEU). During the week they don’t attend, lessons could be taught remotely.

Steve said it was not always possible for teachers to avoid being close to students, most of whom were not wearing masks because the Department for Education (DfE) guidelines say they don’t have to in the classroom.

For most year-groups and particularly the youngest, he said: “These rooms aren’t very big. There’s no way we can get them to sit two metres apart. They’re sat next to each other cheek by jowl, just like normal. If one of them gets it, they’ll pass it on for sure.

“It’s very difficult to get more than a metre and a bit away from the front row.

“There were still no masks in the classroom even with the variant. I see it as a no-brainer.”

As for many, Steve’s school’s policy is to let the students decide while in the classroom. Elsewhere, they have been “fantastic” at complying, said Steve, but in other respects, they go on “as normal”.

“I wouldn’t want them to be worried but when you see them at break times, they’re just like normal teenagers, high fiving and hugging,” he said. “Because they see the absurdity of them being in a room with 29 others.”

He said it felt as if a wedge was being driven between the teachers and parents. He understood face-to-face teaching was preferable, but did not think it a “price worth paying” for rising numbers of Covid cases.

“We’re on the same side as the parents,” he said. “No one wants to affect children’s education, but we also want their grandparents to stay alive.”

Steve said about 15 per cent of his school’s teachers had had coronavirus, and he would not feel safe relying on lateral flow tests. The University of Liverpool research found the Innova test detected only 48.9 per cent of infections, a figure disputed by the government.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this month that when schools are open the disease spreads more easily, but there was no evidence of a higher rate of infection among teachers compared with any other profession.

A paper prepared by the Children’s Task and Finish Group for the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) in November said: “Analysis of ONS data indicates clearly that children can bring infection into the household and transmit to other household members.”

It also states ONS data from September 2 – October 16 showed just below 0.4% of secondary school teachers and 0.5% of teachers of unknown type-testing positive, very similar to other professions.

A DfE spokesperson said: “We are enormously grateful to teachers and other school staff for the resilience and commitment they have shown in supporting children during this challenging time.

“It was right the government did everything possible to keep schools open for all pupils. They are the best place for young people’s education, development and wellbeing.

“The protective measures schools have been following throughout the autumn term remain in place to help protect staff and students, while the national lockdown helps reduce transmission in the wider community.

“Rapid testing will also play an important part in helping find the one in three people who may have the virus without symptoms, breaking chains of transmission and providing further reassurance to staff and families.”

When teachers can expect to be vaccinated is unclear. Vaccine deployment minister Nadhim Zahawi told the Commons science and technology committee last Wednesday (January 13): “My instinct is to say, rightly so, that those who are most likely to come into contact with a viral load, teachers, shop workers policemen and women would be the highest risk of getting the virus, and therefore they’re the ones we should focus on, but I would very much be guided by the JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccines and Immunisations).”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the Commons liaison committee that whether schools are able to reopen to all students after the February half-term depends on the impact of lockdown three, how well the vaccination programme is going, and whether any new vaccine-resistant variant has entered the country.

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