Maintaining social distancing measures will pose major challenges without adequate investment

by Dagmar Walgraeve

When and how schools should schools reopen for all pupils has been a headline issue in the past few weeks. The Tories’ plan to reopen schools in a staged but quick manner in June was met with a backlash from teachers, school staff and parents. Due to the continued pressure from the unions and the parents voting with their feet, the UK government was forced to retreat.

In Northern Ireland, the Executive learned from the experience of their counterparts and adopted a more cautious approach. The Education Minister, Peter Weir, decided to test the waters and announced that the school year for some year groups might begin on 17 August. After consultation with the trade unions, a return date of 24 August for some age groups has been agreed. The fact that this would be for P7, year 12 and year 14 shows it has more to do with safeguarding the outdated process of academic selection rather than the welfare of children.

Hypocrisy on children’s wellbeing

The Tories played the welfare card, especially regarding the most vulnerable, to convince society that reopening schools quickly was a necessity. The hypocrisy of this – after years of austerity, increasing child poverty and cuts in education – should be obvious to anyone. In Northern Ireland, the extension of the definition of ‘key workers’ to include retail, construction and manufacturing workers gave a more accurate reflection of the pressure for schools and childcare settings to reopen: the need for children to be looked after while their parents return to work.

Before the outbreak of Covid-19, childcare was the elephant in the room when it came to the economy.  Around 350,000 workers in Northern Ireland have dependent children (nearly 40% of the workforce) and rely on formal and/or informal childcare before and after school hours and during the holidays.  Yet the NI Executive failed to mention childcare in its five-step Pathway to Recovery plan.  

Very few children have been directly affected by Covid-19. But, indirectly, many children and young people have suffered enormously from the impact that the pandemic has had on their daily lives. A variety of experts in paediatrics, health and education have raised their concerns about the possible long-term impact of the lockdown and physical distancing on children’s social and emotional development, as well as their physical and mental health and well-being.

The need to address these concerns and to introduce measures to alleviate the long-term impact on children, however, must not be used to force anyone working with children to return to work in unsafe schools and settings. While it might be widely accepted that children are less susceptible to Covid-19, there is still a lack of certainty about how they spread it to adults, whether that be in their households, schools or the wider community.

Return plan “unrealistic and undeliverable”

Peter Weir has come under attack from trade unions representing teachers and principals for a lack of consultation and engagement, instead taking arbitrary decisions and announcing them through unregulated channels. Principals and teachers were being told of the reduced 1m social distancing plans at the same time as parents and the general public.

On 18 June, further announcements were made about the reopening of schools and childcare settings. Arlene Foster announced that by reducing physical distancing for children from 2m to 1m, all children would be able to attend full-time from September. This was branded “unrealistic and undeliverable” by Graham Gault, the NI Vice-President of the National Association of Head Teachers.  Anyone who has set foot in a classroom would have to agree with him. Especially in primary schools, it seems the only realistic option of getting all children back to school full-time is to abandon the idea of physical distancing between children completely. In some countries, like Belgium and the Netherlands, this has been the approach. If physical distancing remains a necessity, the possibility of using facilities in the wider community has been raised as an option to facilitate full-time education.

For childcare settings, no physical distancing is required, however, children and staff are to remain in protective bubbles called ‘playpods’ of maximum 12 children and two staff. This means that many settings are unable to operate at full capacity. The drastic relaxation of measures for childcare settings is driven by the government’s desire to reopen the economy. Within the current guidelines, it is unlikely that there will be enough spaces to meet demand.  When schools return in September, this will become even more of an issue.  Many after-school clubs look after children from various schools and the idea of protective bubbles is meaningless in that context.

The reopening of schools and childcare settings is a complex issue, with seemingly contradicting needs of and risks to children and adults’ health and wellbeing. It is also a vital piece in the puzzle to reopening the economy. The Department of Education has released a 53-page guidance document on the reopening of schools. While it clarifies some issues and answers some questions, many issues remain unresolved.

Decades of underinvestment cause major challenges

The lack of space is a significant issue for many schools. The document encourages schools to make use of all space to allow for full-time attendance of pupils, but also to store all the ‘unnecessary items’ that are to be removed from the classroom.  This does not take into account that many schools are already bursting to the seams and have not been given funding over the past years to be able to carry out essential maintenance or expand their estate.  One school near Belfast has been using its assembly/sports/lunch hall as a nursery school for the past two years because the old prefab building is no longer safe to use. Children have already been eating their lunch at their desks and PE was held outside or in the classroom, while assembly and other events that required a big hall have not been possible. There simply is no additional space.

The disparity of space between different schools will lead to inequality for children, as some will be able to attend full-time, while others will still be resigned to remote learning for half the week. The disadvantage this puts children at could have implications for the rest of their school career. It is welcome that some schools are not going to use academic selection for the 2021 school intake. We believe that the transfer tests and academic selection should be scrapped for good.

The use of other facilities near the schools raises more issues than it solves, in terms of staffing, cleaning, catering, transport etc. While clearer guidelines have been provided about hygiene measures that need to be put in place, there is no mention of how this will be funded or procured. Before Covid-19, schools were already relying on parental donations of tissues, wipes and even toilet roll. The document also does not specify how staff are supposed to identify whether a child has a temperature. Will temperature scanners be provided to all schools and should a temperature check be carried out on all staff and pupils at the start of the day? As the winter approaches, many children will have coughs and temperatures due to a variety of viral infections. If one child has Covid-like symptoms, the entire ‘protective bubble’ and their households will have to isolate for 14 days. Parents should be guaranteed that they will not face any loss of pay or detriment at work if they need to self-isolate as a result of this. This will also cause staffing issues for the schools.

Schools left without assistance

The document recommends that schools look at their staffing and supply lists and ensure they’re adequate. This is a recurrent theme in the whole document: everything is the responsibility of the individual school. There is no mention of what the Department is doing or how they will assist. There is also no mention of how you are supposed to teach the curriculum when you are removing ‘unnecessary items and furniture’, such as role play items, Lego, beads, games etc, which are essential for the learning and development of younger children.

Staff, parents and students should take the lead

A very different approach is necessary, one in which staff, parents, and pupils at secondary level can democratically decide when and how to safely reopen our schools. The Departments of Education, Communities and Health could make a start in that by working with trade unions bodies in the variety of professions and sectors involved with caring for children and young people. A taskforce should be established to collate a database of teachers, assistants, support staff, sports coaches, music teachers etc to ensure adequate staffing levels. Necessary funding needs to be put in place to be able to implement the recommended guidance and procedures. If it is not forthcoming, it must be fought for through coordinated campaigns of protest and potentially industrial action.

The campaign spearheaded by footballer Marcus Rashford for free school meal vouchers to be extended through the summer period forced an embarrassing U-turn by the Tories, showing that campaigning works. This will be a welcome assist for working-class families, particularly given the financial pressures many are facing at the moment. The Northern Ireland Executive has agreed in principle to do the same, but was unable to sign off on the details due to disagreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin over compensation for victims of the Troubles. While this, too, is a serious issue, nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of providing children and their families with the support they need.

Years of cuts in the education system have left it ill-equipped to deal with the current challenges. Yet again, government is spending significantly more money bailing out businesses than investing in the future of young people. The trade union organisations need to fight, not only for a safe school environment, but for the transformation of our education system so that it is fully funded, inclusive and meets the needs of all.

Socialists in education and childcare demand:

  • No return without full funding and provision of health and safety
  • Democratic control of health and safety by staff, parents and young people
  • Free, public childcare for all who need it
  • Scrap the transfer tests
  • Free, high-quality, comprehensive and integrated education for all