It’s a school, Jim, but not as we know it

We’ve learned over the past few months that schools are about much more than learning. The social interactions that they provide and the relationships that they nurture are essential to our children’s social development and to their mental health and wellbeing. And yes, they teach stuff, too. They also allow many parents to go to work. Or to get work done from home.

Consequently, it’s hugely important that we try to find a way to re-open our schools in September to all young people. Especially given that we seem to have found ways to open pubs. But only if – and, to be honest, it’s a massive if – we can do so safely.

The need to allow for social distancing between children – and, perhaps more importantly, between children and their (older and more vulnerable) teachers and other school staff – means that the capacity of classrooms and other facilities is reduced significantly.

The fact that some staff are unable to attend school, because they are shielding or are caring for vulnerable family members, compounds the issue further.

In the school of which I’m a governor, for example, we’ve been able to accommodate about a quarter of the normal school population. And even that has only been possible due to a lot of hard work from school staff and the immense goodwill of parents and young people alike.

It’s also increased drastically the teaching workload, with the provision of work and support to those not in school and regular contact with parents, guardians and carers.

While I’m not a virologist or an epidemiologist, so I get my information on the coronavirus from the same newspapers as everyone else, it’s evident that there’s still a lot we don’t know about COVID-19.

It seemed at first that children didn’t get it. It then became apparent that they could get it, but didn’t necessarily show any symptoms. And there’s now a suggestion that the re-opening of schools could lead to ‘superspreader’ events and drive community transmission. Which is obviously something we’d prefer to avoid. (At least, I hope that’s obvious.)

So we’re going to need to proceed extremely carefully. Especially with the time lag between people getting the virus, showing symptoms and (if necessary) seeking treatment, which means we don’t see the impact of our decisions and actions immediately.

On the basis of current evidence, then, it seems that getting all young people back into school in September, using current school capacity, just isn’t going to be feasible. Not without taking some rather huge – and, in my view, entirely unacceptable – risks with the health and wellbeing of staff and students alike.

We are, therefore, going to need to do things a little differently.

It’s tempting to argue that we should simply lock down our schools until we have a vaccine or until we’ve found some other way to mitigate the effects of the virus on those who catch it. But that could take ages.

And, as with most things in life, it’s not about removing the risk completely (there’s a risk associated with pretty much everything in life), but about managing it. The most we can hope for is to re-open schools as best we can, consistent with an acceptably low risk of COVID-19 transmission.

There are already calls for pubs, restaurants and some ‘non-essential’ shops to be closed again, so that we can re-open schools without creating a massive second wave of infections. I have no idea whether this would work (I don’t think it’s the Year 9’s forming unruly queues outside Wetherspoons), but anyway it still doesn’t address the issue of school capacity.

Or of demand for teachers and other staff to replace those who are, for whatever reason, unable to work.

My suggestion is, therefore, that – subject to the science saying it’s reasonably safe to do so – we reconsider what we mean by a school.

(I’ll reiterate at this point that the science needs to say that it’s sufficiently safe to re-open schools in some way to a wider group of young people. And if our understanding of the science changes, our response may need to change accordingly. We’re dealing with kids here, after all, and we have a moral duty to do right by them.)

A school is, after all, just a building with ‘school’ written on the front of it. If we’re going for reduced class sizes, as seems sensible, numerous buildings could fulfil this function. And many of them are currently sitting empty.

Just as we quickly established ‘Nightingale’ hospitals in conference centres and such like, it is surely not beyond our capabilities to set up a network of ‘Nightingale’ schools in empty offices, village halls, sports centres and other venues. Perhaps even, if needs must, in pubs, restaurants and ‘non-essential’ shops (preferably ones that aren’t currently open, I guess).

If it can take ten students and a teacher, it’s in.

We will, of course, also need to find enough teachers to run these ‘schools’, to teach lessons and to supervise other activities. This might mean that we make more use of non-teacher led activities (i.e. classes led by someone who isn’t a teacher, but who knows what they’re doing), sporting activities or other things that have an educational benefit but take place in a non-classroom environment.

I was going to suggest that we draft in an army of retired teachers, but my wife has – quite sensibly – pointed out that such individuals fall into a high-risk group for COVID-19, so should probably be kept separate from a horde of potential superspreaders. But they may be able to help remotely or to provide support in some other way.

I also thought about mobilising the actual army, but that might be going a bit far. Although an afternoon with a Royal Marines physical training instructor would no doubt help to take the edge off even the most excitable primary class.

There are, though, hundreds of furloughed or unemployed or otherwise available people out there with the skills we’d need.

Not just teachers, but university lecturers, graduate students, management trainers, sports instructors, parents and more. And an entire cohort of new graduates in all subjects under the sun, many of whose immediate job prospects (let’s be honest) look a little bleak.

And they don’t even need to do it in person. After all, if Joe Wicks can do PE on YouTube, perhaps we could rope in David Attenborough to do some nature, Hilary Mantel to do some literature and Bobby Seagull to do some maths.

Sure, we’d need to get the infrastructure right. But if we get some decent safeguarding procedures in place, use ‘bubbles’ sensibly and provide headteachers with the resources they require to coordinate things, I see no reason at all why we couldn’t make this happen.

Subject, of course, to the science saying it’s sufficiently safe to do so. And to us being willing to lock things down again, either locally or nationally, if infection rates start to rise.

A while ago, I wrote something along the lines that, if we get betting shops up and running before our schools, we’ll know we’re doing something wrong. Betting shops re-opened for business in England on 15th June. Our schools remained physically closed to most pupils. We are, indeed, doing something wrong.

The re-opening of our schools in a safe and secure way after the summer holidays should be a national priority. The fact that it so far hasn’t been is disappointing in the extreme.

But it’s not too late.

We just need the will and the leadership to get it done.

Provided, and I’ll not apologise for saying this again, it’s sufficiently safe to do so.

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