We teachers have been key workers throughout the Covid-19 lockdown. We fall between various stools: we are not the real heroes of the story (those working in ICU whether as doctors or nurses or cleaners) nor are we the everyday workers who, through continuing to deliver our Amazon parcels, have been keeping us all sane. Yet we are increasingly at the centre of the row about how to return the country to something resembling pre-20th March normality. And we are, it has to be said, feeling increasingly frustrated at the lack of guidance and thought that seems to be going into what we should be doing and how.
There are various threads to the school argument, and they do not all plait together nicely. The country needs children back in school so that their parents can return to work. The children (and staff) need to be kept safe and, perhaps as importantly, need to feel safe. Furthermore, the pupils need to be back in school as a simple matter of continuing their education. Not just their learning, but their general development. There is no doubt that a small minority of children will return to school – whenever schools reopen properly – almost feral.
I have been going into school throughout its closure, on a rota to look after vulnerable children and children of key workers. A surprisingly small number of children eligible to come in have taken up the invitation and while looking after them is obviously a much easier job than five hours of teaching, we are presented with a variety of problems very different from those of a normal day’s work. Some of the children in school are among our weakest, educationally and socially; time spent with them is particularly rewarding. Relationships built up between them and staff now will have a positive impact when we return to normal classes, but while we are building up relationships we are not really teaching them very much. They are asked to spend some time in computer rooms for online lessons and then we devise “activities” for them during the rest of the day.
Parents ask me if their children are being used as experimental sacrifices in an effort to get the country back on its feet. – Sophia Waugh
Reports suggest, unsurprisingly, that private schools are offering much more focussed learning – in other words online lessons delivered by the students’ actual teachers – than state schools. This is unsurprising. We don’t have the resources (a polite word for money) and neither do many of our students. So we have been delivering bought-in online lessons and writing quizzes on the lessons for our children to undertake. There are two things that could – and do – go wrong with this. Some of the children, with little parental backing, make no attempt to do the lessons at all, but just guesswork on the quizzes, getting very poor results and learning nothing. Others do neither the lessons nor the quizzes. And some get themselves in such a state about doing badly that they do the lessons but do not dare attempt the quizzes. Reports claim that more than two million children have done less than an hour a day of work since the schools were closed, but it does seem a little better than that to me. Very few of the children I teach have done absolutely nothing; the problem is that the children who have done nothing are the very ones who need us most, the ones we were already in danger of losing before the schools even closed and who will find it incredibly difficult to readapt to the discipline of a school day.
But now, schools are beginning tentatively to reopen. I have spent this week, not with the key workers’ children, but in one to one meetings with my Year 10 (14-15 year old) tutees. For the last three weeks of the term we will be offering classes to these children – only three hours a week, but it is something. And it is apparent that the children, on the whole, do want to come back. It is their parents who are worried, mostly because of the lack of Government leadership. How, they ask, can it be safe for their children to come back into school but not safe for a family even to attend a funeral outside? Are their children being used as experimental sacrifices in an effort to get the country back on its feet? At the same time, they are worried at how much school their children are missing. Parents and children are both realising how much they do in fact need us, but the Government is frightening them with its contrary messages.
There is no doubt that a small minority of children will return to school – whenever schools reopen properly – almost feral. – Sophia Waugh
This much we do know: we can only have 25% of the year group in at any one time; the key workers’ children and the Year 10s must be kept apart at all times; we have to follow social distancing guidelines (only nine children and a teacher in a classroom); we cannot mark any work the children do at school as we must not touch it. Any pupils who are both children of key workers and in Year 10 have to make a choice between attending the once a week lessons, or staying full time with the babysat rather than taught students. They cannot be part of both sections of the school. What kind of a choice is that, I ask you?
Meanwhile, there is nothing we can say to parents about September. Will all or some of the children be back? Will we back full time or part time? What are we to do about the GCSE children who have missed so much content? Teachers are supposed to be the calm, controlled figure of authority to the children, and to many of their parents. The lack of guidelines being given to us is yet another reason parents are so worried. The blind are leading the blind and the children are trailing behind.
Sophia Waugh is a teacher and freelance journalist and writer. Her most recent book is Cooking People: The Writers who taught the Eritish how to eat
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