Boris Johnson has announced that schools in England will be returning “with full attendance” in September. This follows a sustained propaganda campaign from the media and pro-capitalist politicians designed to put pressure on schools to re-open as soon as possible.
But it will be impossible to run full capacity schools in a safe manner. It would mean either scrapping all social distancing restrictions, against all independent scientific advice, or somehow finding more staff and infrastructure. The latter is impossible given the timeframe and clear lack of willingness from the government to properly fund education.
The battle for the safe re-opening of schools is far from over. At the start of the pandemic, the NEU took a strong stance by setting out “5 Tests” that need to be met before schools can return. These tests remain as relevant as ever, especially given the current lack of a functioning tracking and tracing system.
The NEU need to make clear that it will not support any wider re-opening in September that is based on unsafe conditions. Given the danger of a second wave in the Autumn it is essential that in schools are closed as soon as a case of Covid-19 is found in the school community to allow cleaning, testing and tracking to take place.
Schools have lost the funding that previously allowed for teaching assistants and support workers to help the most vulnerable, meaning the capacity to ensure these students have a carefully managed return to school does not exist. Cuts to council services means schools have often had to play the role of social workers too, meaning they will be under immense pressure come September.
It seems likely that some form of ‘blended learning’ will be needed in September – balancing home learning with contact time in school. Teachers will need to be given the time and equipment to do this and proper training on how to manage it effectively and safely. The government needs to ensure that disadvantaged students have access to laptops and internet at home, something they have already promised and not adequately delivered.
The government has suggested that schools should open over the summer to help students ‘catch up’. Not only is this a breach of teachers’ conditions, it will also damage the mental health of young people. Instead the government should properly fund summer school provision that focuses on general wellbeing and learning through enjoyment – something that previously did exist before the cuts.
Rather than spending money on privately run tuition, supply teachers that have desperately struggled for work over the lockdown should be employed directly through properly funded local authority pools.
When schools do safely return, we need a focus on student welfare and socialisation, not a high-pressured academic catch up and exam preparation. SATS should be scrapped and the curriculum suspended to allow teachers to focus on helping students re-adjust to a positive learning culture.