Coronavirus chaos as the education system reaches breaking point

a classroom
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Schools are currently struggling to cope with the chaos surrounding the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. Some have had to shut entirely. But the picture reflects the wider chaos in our education system – and the government’s wilful negligence over pupils’ and teachers’ safety.

Schools in chaos

The school this writer’s step son goes to had already put in place earlier finishing times due to the number of teachers having to isolate. Anecdotally, pupils were saying that by Monday 12 July, the majority of year 10 students were in isolation too.

Then, on Tuesday 13 July, the school sent parents of year 10 students a text message asking them to “check their email for an important announcement”. The email said that all year 10 pupils would be working from home for the rest of the week.

Judging by Twitter, the school is not the only one in this precarious situation. People have been reporting similar situations, with whole schools having to close. Yet despite this, the government guidance on what schools will be doing from so-called ‘Freedom Day’ on 19 July has been chaotic, at best.

Goalpost-shifting guidance

The Department for Education (DfE) has released guidance around contact tracing changes. On the same day, it also published guidance of what schools are to do after Step 4 is reached. As things stand, that’s 19 July. Schools Week noted that parts of this were U-turns on the DfE-issued guidance from 6 July. But the DfE also updated its pre-Step 4 guidance on 14 July, too.

The National Education Union (NEU) told The Canary that the DfE was supposed to have emailed the guidance to all headteachers at around 5pm on Thursday 15 July. Anecdotally, some schools have so far not issued guidance for next week – because they haven’t received it from the DfE.

Previously, when the DfE issued guidance on 6 July, the NEU wrote to the government warning them about the rapid relaxation of restrictions. So far, the NEU has not commented on the latest, updated guidance – which included changes about face masks. It directed The Canary to comments it made over changes to contact tracing.

Read on...

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Confused? You’d be forgiven for being. Because schools are in perpetual chaos due to the government’s indecisive approach to restrictions.

Not “out of the woods yet”

Things are potentially looking no better for the September term. On Thursday 15 July, the government’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty warned that regarding hospitalisations:

I don’t think we should underestimate the fact that we could get into trouble again surprisingly fast.

And he said that overall:

we are not by any means out of the woods yet

The school mentioned in this article has already sent out guidance for September. It’s essentially a return to normal. But how long this lasts is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in primary school children are at their highest levels of the entire pandemic. Nationally, one in five pupils were off school last week – again, the highest level during the pandemic. The DfE and the government have still not said what will happen with exams in 2022. And the NEU has criticised the government’s handling of this year’s exams.

At the centre of this chaos are students: essentially pawns in the government’s game.

Irreparable educational damage?

First, there’s the lost learning and long-term impact on pupils education. The government has given schools more money to try and alleviate this. But in terms of the £4.5bn education budget, the government’s so-called catch-up premium grants are a drop in the ocean; £80 per pupil and £240 per SEND pupil. This is roughly £650m or 14.6% of the education budget. The government did not even give schools this money in one go. Instead, it spread it across three payments.

There was also £350m for “disadvantaged pupils” to have additional tutoring. Again, this is probably not sufficient. In January 2021, potentially more than one million children still did not have laptop access, despite the government programme to provide them. It’s impossible to financially quantify the cost of the disruption that most of England’s school students have faced. But many might agree that £80/£240 and additional tutoring for some simply will not cover it.

Research by Teach First found that the poorest pupils were twice as likely to have fallen behind with learning than richer students. As The Canary recently reported, this comes after the National Audit Office (NAO) revealed that almost 60% of the most deprived fifth of schools had seen a real terms reduction in government funding since 2017-18.

The long-term health effects

Then, there’s the long-term impact of this level of disruption. As an NEU survey of teachers found:

  • 78% told us that mental health issues among children and young people have increased in past year, with 34% of respondents saying they had “increased greatly”.
  • 62% believe government is treating the poor mental health of young people as a low priority.
  • Political pressure to prioritise ‘catch up’ is at the expense of supporting students with mental health issues, according to 66% of respondents. This is made worse by a lack of access to support services and sufficient staff.

Also, the government is ignoring the health implications of coronavirus for children. Not least in this is the risk long Covid poses for young people. As Nature reported, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that:

9.8% of children aged 2–11 years and 13% aged 12–16 years reported at least one lingering symptom five weeks after a positive diagnosis. Another report released in April found that one-quarter of children who were surveyed after discharge from hospital in Russia post-COVID-19, had symptoms more than five months later.

Meanwhile, a US study found that around four in 100 children who were hospitalised with coronavirus were at risk of neurological complications.

Round in circles

Moreover, we’ve been here before with the government’s restrictions flip-flopping. Back in July 2020, education secretary Gavin Williamson said that schools would be back to some sort of normality in the September. He also said that exams will:

go ahead as normal in the summer of 2021.

Exams weren’t normal. Students went back in September, and then the government closed schools again in January this year.

The Canary asked the DfE for comment, but it hadn’t responded at the time of publication.

Ultimately, the government forcing children and teachers to remain in school is a risk to us all. And it represents its wider approach of ‘wealth over health’ during the pandemic.

‘Silence’ from government

Throughout this pandemic, the DfE and ministers have been wilfully negligent over school policy. For example, in December 2020, children in London were driving cases of coronavirus, but the government threatened some schools that wanted to close with legal action. Of course, come January this year, schools were closed and we were all back in lockdown. As the NEU’s joint general secretary Kevin Courtney wrote:

Unsurprisingly, there are now many anecdotes of parents starting to keep children off – trying to avoid their child having to self-isolate for the first days of a planned holiday.

Williamson has remained silent over these increasing outbreaks and increasing cases ever since he abandoned the mask-wearing mandate in mid-May.

[He] appears to have written off this term, and his dilatory attitude may now also write off many families’ summer holidays.

Now, with nearly all restrictions virtually abandoned come 19 July, it looks increasingly likely that the national picture will become worse.

“Profits first”

As The Canary‘s weekend editor Afroze Fatima Zaidi recently summed up:

We ended lockdown too early last year and sent kids back to school in September and then had the 2nd wave. We’re now on cusp of a 3rd wave thanks to Delta variant (95% of UK cases) but still reopening 19 July. People will die all over again because this govt keeps putting profits first.

“Profits first” often being if you’re a Conservative Party ally, with smaller businesses struggling to cope.

As the NEU previously warned:

we believe that should cases continue to rise, with negative health consequences in the Autumn term that [ministers] have a plan and can act quickly and decisively.

We all know the results of dither and delay.

The effects of the government’s disastrous handling of education during the pandemic will be felt in both the short and long-term. It remains to be seen how many children’s futures will have been affected by the chaos. Moreover, it’s still unclear whether anything the government is doing will make up for the mental scarring, health implications, and lost learning millions of young people will be left to grapple with.

Featured image via Allison Meier – Flickr 

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