‘Our Only Immediate Contact with the Virus Has Been Through School’
Sian Norris and the Byline Times Team talk to parents on the frontline of COVID-19 transmission in Britain’s education system
Schools are safe we were told – but parents tell us that despite best efforts from teachers, sending children to school has been full of risks since September.
“My partner’s school has had 21 cases of coronavirus as far as we know,” Elly* explains. “Only one staff member said they caught it outside the school. At least four staff members have become seriously ill, one pregnant. Two of them haven’t been able to return to work.”
On Sunday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the nation via his BBC Marr interview that “schools are safe”, urging parents to return their children to the classroom on 4 January. By 8pm Monday night, as public health officials moved the UK into the highest level of COVID-alert, schools were no longer considered safe and told to close.
In the wake of the announcement, a report in the TES revealed what Elly, her partner and parents across the nation knew to be true but didn’t have the data to prove: teacher COVID rates were up to 333% above the national average. In Birmingham, where Elly and her family live, the prevalence rate averaged at 1146.1 for primary staff and 1027.2 for secondary staff. This was compared to 312.2 for the local authority as a whole.
While the government insisted that risk to children and young people was low, the data now shows teachers were more likely to be infected with COVID-19. As a result, they were more likely to pass it on to children who would take it home to vulnerable parents and grandparents.
From the Classroom to ICU
This was the case for Amanda Bail, in West London. “My niece started primary school in September,” Bail told Byline Times. “The initial excitement of joining ‘big school’ soon became an absolute nightmare for her family.”
Coronavirus tore through the family after a teaching assistant in her niece’s school had a positive test and the classroom was told to isolate. Despite the many precautions her family took, including showering their daughter as soon as she returned home from school and only seeing grandparents in the garden, every member of Bail’s niece’s family was soon infected – including her 73 and 77 year old grandparents.
“Three days later grandad collapsed at home and was taken to hospital where he remained for 11 days,” Bail said. “His oxygen saturation levels in the ambulance were worryingly low and once admitted he had clot markers on his lungs that led to 6 days in intensive care.”
Bail is clear that school was the vector as the family had kept a very tight bubble to prevent infection.
“Our only immediate contact with the virus as a family has been through school,” Bail explains. Her own daughter, who goes to a small secondary school in West London, has had to quarantine twice following infections in her classroom, although on both occasions Bail’s family tested negative.
Caring for a Disabled Child
Even before school closures, Elly had removed her eldest child from school “due to the distress of COVID.” Her child is autistic and was struggling with the constant changes to the rules and processes. “The continual changes of procedure took away all of their coping strategies and they were becoming ill with stress,” she explained. “The toll on mental well-being is huge.”
Elly feels compelled to speak out after losing her best friend in May to an illness unrelated to coronavirus. A primary school teacher who was never afraid to stand up for justice, Elly “spoke to her the afternoon before she died and I know how stressed and anxious she was” about the government’s handling of schools. “I’m speaking for her now.”
One of the issues facing schools, Elly told us, is their size. The school where her partner works and where their other children attend “is huge. This is a combined site of primary, secondary and special schools together. The consequences of building super schools has led to them being super spreaders.”
And while pupils don’t have to wear masks in the classroom, Elly believes the refusal of one trainee to wear a mask contributed to the 21 cases among the 120 staff. “He literally caused an entire department to close down. And because the school needs funding from the trainees it takes, he’s been allowed back into the building once his isolation period finished.”
While many pupils will be at home taking part in online lessons for the foreseeable future, schools remain open for children of key workers and those who are deemed vulnerable.
“We are lucky at my children’s school as it’s got a lot of space,” Alex* told Byline Times. Both he and his partner are key workers in the South West of England. “There are five children in my oldest’s bubble, and eight in my youngest’s. Each group has a classroom each. Our school has managed it brilliantly and while it’s not ideal as a parent, my children are happy to be in school and they don’t feel anxious.”
It’s anticipated that more children will be attending school than in the last lockdown. Some key worker parents, like Alex, chose to keep their children at home during the first wave but due to work pressures are taking a different approach this time around.
The government has also expanded the definition of vulnerable children to include “pupils who may have difficulty engaging with remote education at home (for example due to a lack of devices or quiet space to study).”
The list includes care leavers, children in temporary accommodation, those at risk of becoming NEET (not in employment, education or training), young carers, and those who are assessed under section 17 of the Children Act 1989.
While it is good to see the government recognise that poor housing and digital poverty impact on a child’s learning and therefore they may be better served by being in the classroom, the increase in pupils recommended to go to school has an impact. The more children in school, the more pressure on maintaining social distancing, staff shortages due to teachers having to self-isolate, and teachers managing in-person and online lessons.
The expansion of pupils allowed to attend lessons in-person will also disproportionately impact on schools in deprived areas which are already more vulnerable to coronavirus. Some schools in the most deprived regions are saying that if all eligible children turn up to school, they could have up to 70 per cent of their students onsite.
Teachers will still be going into school too, both to teach in-person and to deliver online lessons. The last minute policy change has meant the need for more staff to journey into school in order to manage the transition from schools being mass-testing sites, to being de facto shut.
“My partner has been asked to go in today,” Elly says. “So schools are still having to place their staff members at risk while they plan. I can’t tell you how angry I am.”
*Names changed to protect identities
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