Parents and teachers in Bucks unsure about whether schools should reopen in June
As schools across the region face the daunting prospect of reopening during a pandemic involving a deadly disease that spreads by human to human contact, we have spoken to teachers and parents on their views.
On 10 May, during a televised address to the nation, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the plan for nurseries, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6, to return to school on 1 June. Latterly, Year 10 and Year 12 have also been told to prepare for some 'face-to-face contact.'
After push back from some local councils as well as from unions, teachers and The British Medical Association (BMA), the Government's language has softened. Currently the government's stance is:
“We anticipate with further progress that we may be able, from the week commencing 1 June, to welcome back more children to early years, school and further education settings. We will only do this provided that the five key tests set by government justify the changes at the time, including that the rate of infection is decreasing and the enabling programmes set out in the recovery strategy are operating effectively. As a result, we are asking schools, colleges and childcare providers to plan on this basis, ahead of confirmation that these tests are met.”
The Scottish government has announced that its schools will not reopen until 11 August – after the summer holidays which are earlier in Scotland.
Northern Ireland are planning a late August return for some students with the rest to follow in September.
The Welsh government has also said their schools will not open on 1 June.
One theme that was repeated time and again in our conversations with parents and teachers was a feeling that there is a lack of information and evidence available.
A head teacher of a Bucks secondary school The Bucks Herald: “At this moment in time the information that is out there is a little ambiguous and the Government still hasn't published guidance for secondary schools.”
A teacher at another secondary school said: “Of course I want them to go back to school if they can because that's the best place from an educational point of view, however I really don't want it to be unsafe and at the moment there's still a lot of measures to put in place. It's about balancing the risks and really things are not very clear at the moment.”
More worryingly, a teaching assistant (TA) at a primary school in Bucks said: “I feel that information is not coming out in a timely manner and this could translate into people dying.”
Inevitably, another serious concern repeated by many was just how you get children, especially young children, to socially distance at schools, even with the reduced class sizes of 15 or less, proposed by the government.
The primary school TA said: “Anyone who works in a school will know that you can't social distance from children that are Year 1 or Reception at all. They're not going to stay away from each other and they're more needy so in that respect I don't think it's safe and I don't think it's safe for the teachers either.”
The secondary school teacher admitted: “It's going to be difficult to control the spread in schools,” adding, “it's such a huge thing to think about logistically. That's why there's a lot of resistance from the unions because when you think about it it seems impossible.”
The head teacher also acknowledged that “it is impossible to eliminate the risk entirely.”
Everyone we spoke to felt confused as to why, with just 38 school days between 1 June and the summer break, there is a need to get children back to school, with some even suggesting it felt like guesswork or an experiment.
The secondary school teacher told us: “We definitely need more guidance from the government but then I don't think they really know everything so it makes it a bit of a shot in the dark.”
A parent who has a child in nursery in Bucks said: "When you put a date forward you should be highly confident that our children will be OK otherwise why would you set that date?”
The primary school TA said: “We are still finding out about this virus so I'm not sure why we're going back for just seven weeks.”
When we asked the head teacher if what was being proposed felt like an experiment they responded after a long pause: “I suppose there's an element of that to it.”
We asked parents and teachers what their situation would be on 1 June.
The secondary school teacher revealed: "Our school is definitely not opening on the 1 June. We're just not ready at the moment and we're still trying to clarify some things with the Department for Education”
A parent who has children at both primary and secondary schools in Bucks told us: "Mine definitely won't be going back until at least September and if they want to take me to court then fine, I'm sure I won't be the only one."
The primary school teaching assistant said: “I've refused to go back. I'm meant to be going back but I've said I'm not prepared to take the risk so I'm still waiting for the repercussions of that.”
While the Government has said that parents who decide not to send their children back in June will not be fined, it's unclear how staff who refuse to return may fare.
The parent of a child in nursery was unsure what they will do, telling us: “My son's nursery has said that he can come back in June but I still don't know what I'm going to do and I've communicated that I want to think about it.”
With only 10 days to go until schools are set to reopen, the government’s panel of scientific experts, SAGE, has published a series of papers today (22/05/20) on some of the scientific evidence behind reopening schools.
Dr Patrick Roach, General Secretary of the NASUWT teacher's union, has provided the following comments assessing the government's papers: “The evidence presented by SAGE in terms of justifying the decision by Government to start to reopen schools from 1 June is inconclusive.
“The papers highlight the significant gaps in evidence, knowledge and understanding which remain in terms of the susceptibility of children to Covid-19 and how infectious those with mild and asymptomatic cases of the virus may be.”
Echoing what we heard during our interviews, Dr Roach continued: “The SAGE papers published today will only add to teachers’ uncertainty and anxiety,” adding that current arrangements “are yet to secure the confidence of parents and school staff.”
The situation may be best summed up by Dr Peter English, Chair of Public Health Medicine Committee at BMA. In a letter published on their website on Wednesday 20 May he wrote: “Parents up and down the UK are asking the same question: is it safe? The simple answer is, we do not yet know.”
This paper asked for a comment from Buckinghamshire Council but had not received a response at the time of publication.