As the government announces plans to reopen schools in England to some children on 1 June, Stylist speaks to four teachers about the reality they’re now facing.
It’s safe to say that last week’s lockdown briefing left many of us with plenty of questions left to be answered. Whether you’re feeling anxious and saddened or straight-up confused, you’re definitely not the only one struggling to come to terms with the details of Boris Johnson’s address and the 60-page recovery strategy that was published on Monday afternoon.
One of the groups most affected by the government’s latest update was teachers, many of whom are now facing the prospect of going back to school on 1 June. It was announced that children from reception, year one and year six classes are expected to return to primary schools from 1 June, with the hope that all primary school pupils will return to school “before the summer for a month if feasible”. Johnson also announced the government’s intention to give pupils who are taking their exams next year (those in years 10 and 12) time with their teachers before the summer holidays.
This news did not fall on entirely welcome ears. For teachers up and down the country, the prospect of seeing children return to school so soon – especially those in the younger age groups – is a concerning one, especially when different areas of the UK are adopting different approaches.
In Northern Ireland, the education minister said it was “extremely likely” that there would be a phased return of schools after the summer holidays, but said that the decision would ultimately be led by a number of criteria and “practical measures” to ensure safety. Governments in Wales and Scotland have suggested a similar approach: Wales’ education minister has said schools there will not reopen on 1 June, and Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon warned that reopening schools too early there would “most likely” see the NHS overwhelmed within months, and that a reopen before summer might not be possible.
On top of these differences, concerns about the children’s inability to socially distance, and questions about how teachers will stay safe in such close proximity to others, have left many teachers in England feeling let down by the latest coronavirus lockdown announcements.
Here, we speak to four teachers about how they feel about going back to school – and what they want the government to do next.
Sarah Beacham*, a year one teacher in an inner city school
“When lockdown was imposed, all staff (teachers and teaching assistants) were put on a rota to go into school to look after the children whose parents are key workers or are classed as ‘vulnerable’. We have also been planning schedules from home and sending them out, as well as doing recorded lessons which are uploaded onto the school website and YouTube channel. Some staff at my school also deliver home learning booklets to children’s houses.
“I don’t think the directions and advice from the government have been clear at all. We were given two days’ notice that schools were shutting, leaving us barely any time to prepare home learning resources. Parents were constantly asking us questions and we felt embarrassed that we knew only as much as them.
“On a personal level, I’ve coped fine with the change. I am lucky enough to be isolating with my family and have been keeping busy by going running and doing home workouts. On a professional level, it has been quite hard, as we’re at a crucial part in the school year where the children’s progress was starting to show. I miss all of the children in my class a lot and it is hard being apart from them for so long.
“I feel sad and angry after [Sunday’s] announcement. I strongly believe schools should have been consulted first. A national questionnaire went out to parents last week and 25% of parents said they would feel comfortable with a September return date if it was safe.
“Before schools reopen the government needs to share the evidence and modelling of the science behind the decision. There are so many unanswered questions. Why these specific year groups? Why 1 June – what’s the rush? Yes, reception and year one are key year groups to set solid foundation blocks for their early development of learning, but is this more important than their health?
“As the children in my class are only five and six years old, I know they won’t be able to maintain social distancing – they will want to see and play with their friends, and telling them they can’t will have a detrimental effect on their mental health. I saw a quote today that sums it up perfectly: ‘A school can’t stop the spread of nits, never mind a global pandemic!’
“I feel conflicted about wanting to return to work but also wanting to be safe. When I made this clear on social media, someone messaged me saying ‘you just want more time off’. First of all, we haven’t had time off (we are still planning four lessons a day to be sent home) and secondly, I would absolutely love to be spending time with the children and not working from home. However health comes first, and as I work in an inner city school, a lot of the children live with their grandparents and elderly relatives. It’s a huge risk to send children back and cause a second wave.”
Megan Clinton*, a French and Spanish teacher in a secondary school
“Since lockdown was imposed, we’ve been working online and sending resources and PowerPoints to students and asking for written work to be sent back. My school has been fantastic at dealing with the changes.
“We had to close with very little notice and no guidance. There doesn’t seem to be a set standard, so schools have had to choose how to proceed. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – I don’t trust the current government to be realistic in their expectations of what we can do – but parents seem to have a lot of different ideas about what we as teachers should be offering.
“I saw Sunday’s announcement coming and now feel very stressed. I have seen first-hand how badly people can get sick with coronavirus – I have lost family members and have had friends lose family members to it. I have seen in the news that countries like Germany and Denmark have had increased R values after reopening their schools.
“There is no way social distancing could work in schools and I don’t know how things will be kept clean: there are classrooms without windows and proper ventilation. I know of schools where cleaning is done with watered down anti-bacterial spray to save money, and their carpets, curtains and other soft furnishings are never cleaned.
“My classroom could fit maybe eight students in it if they were two metres apart. We also know there isn’t enough PPE for frontline medics, so I can’t see how they can provide it for us.
“I worry about the mental health of my students but I am not willing to risk my health or the health of my family until there is sufficient protection in place or until we find some kind of treatment. The current pandemic has triggered some severe health anxiety and I know I would not feel capable of doing much more than babysitting if we were to go back anytime soon.
“I have genuinely considered handing my notice in if we go back soon, but realistically I think I would try to get signed off with stress for a week or two. I feel very guilty doing so as I know most essential workers don’t have that choice, but I am terrified.”
Lucy Griffiths, a year five teacher in a village primary school
“I have been on a rota since lockdown was imposed. We have been in school for a week to look after key workers’ children and then had four weeks off. We also set weekly and daily work for the children at home which is sent back to us to mark and comment on. Out of my class of 30, 28 are engaging which is a great turnout, and I am thrilled with what they have been doing.
“On a professional level, I have loved the interaction with my class and enjoyed the structure of sending out work for them to do. The feedback from both the kids and the parents has been brilliant. Personally has been a different matter. I am one of life’s control freaks and at the start of this I was desperate for information, but very quickly came to the realisation that this was incredibly detrimental for my mental health. I now catch up on the headlines in the morning unless there’s a big announcement. I have been very up and down. Life feels like a rollercoaster.
“That announcement was a shock. I thought that, at a push, we might be back at the end of June or the beginning of July, but not until the five measures had been met. I don’t think we can ease lockdown before getting a proper test and track scheme in place.
“In the press, teachers are being called lazy and being accused of not doing enough and wanting extra time off. I am sick to death of it. It seems like we are the next batch of guinea pigs to be tested on. There needs to be two metres social distancing – how the hell does that happen in a school? Will we wear PPE? Do we still cater for the children who are being kept at home? What about my colleagues who are vulnerable and not able to come back to work? There are so many questions and no answers.
“I miss my class so much and the thought of not teaching them again before they move into year six actually breaks my heart a little, but I only want them to return when it is safe to do so. If I had a child of school age (my son is now 16) I would not be sending him back as it’s a gamble. I don’t trust the government to make decisions. I am so angry, let down and scared.
“I want to see the lockdown extended for another three weeks and then go from there. I feel like I’m being thrown to the lions and feel even more undervalued as a teacher than I did before.”
Anne Smith*, a languages teacher at a secondary school
“I’ve been teaching for 10 years and to suddenly have to do all our provision online is insane – it’s very intense and we’ve learned a lot. We’ve tapped into skills that we didn’t know we had and realised that it’s actually a lot more doable from home than anyone ever believed.
“The government advice hasn’t been great. I think when they first closed the schools it was very sudden and we were all sort of left hanging a little bit. Generally, colleagues around me seem to be quite grateful about the decision that was made regarding GCSEs, but the follow up on that has not been particularly easy to understand, like how staff are supposed to allocate grades.
“I thought last night’s announcement was as clear as mud and they could have been a lot more specific. I feel nervous and concerned for our key worker children because they feel like everything’s up in the air a little bit – they’ve got themselves this quite nice bubble of 15 or so and they don’t know if there’s going to be changes or whether more students are going to be coming into school.
“Personally, I was really frightened that they were going to open all the schools because there’d been a lot of rumours about the 1 June. I was really anxious about that and I was pleased that that wasn’t the case. However, Johnson said in his briefing that the current year 10 students would get some time with their teachers before September, but he didn’t explain how or when.
“I’m anxious because social distancing in a secondary school of 1000 teenagers is absolutely impossible. The corridors are not two metres wide. My classroom would fit eight children if we had to socially distance and my colleagues’ classroom would fit four. We’ve got classes here of up to 32 kids. I think the government needs to understand that it’s just not possible – I think there’s a huge number of things that would need to be considered before they can fully reopen schools.
“I feel conflicted about wanting to get back to work but also wanting to stay safe. I miss the children. I miss them horribly. I’ve taught some of these kids for five years and not having that daily contact is hard. But also, if I can’t see my mum, I don’t see why I should risk being around 100 teenagers who don’t wash their hands properly.
“I think we need to put a proper pause on reopening schools for a while. My thoughts have always been that we’d go back in September. I think we need to make sure that schools are safe, for teachers, for students, for the canteen staff, the cleaners, the teaching assistants, vulnerable parents at home – everybody.
“We need to make sure everyone is safe before we can even consider a full reopen.”
* names have been changed