Wed 3 March 2021

Harriet Williamson speaks to teachers about feeling like an ‘afterthought’ as those still working in schools with vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers are not deemed to be a priority for vaccination

Teachers and school staff are calling to be made a priority to receive the Coronavirus vaccine, with the group still not on the list of those deemed in need of the jabs urgently.

As the pandemic continues to rage, the Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi has said that the Government is hoping to target more key workers in the next phase of the vaccine roll-out. But a decision will reportedly not be made on who this includes until mid-February.

Now a petition calling for teachers, school and childcare staff to be vaccinated has gathered more than 470,000 signatures.

Schools may be closed for the majority of pupils during the lockdown, but teachers are still risking their health to go into places of learning to care for vulnerable children for whom home is not a safe place and the children of key workers. 

Claire*, a south London primary school teacher, told Byline Times: “Along with essential shop staff and public transport staff, we have the most contact with the public after the NHS. While we only have about 10% of children in school this is still a lot of households mixing with ours and the demand for [school] provision is increasing daily as the key workers’ list expands and parents, understandably, struggle to cope with home-schooling. State school teachers have no respect from the Government.”

Messaging around the safety of schools has been confused and inconsistent from the outset of the COVID-19 crisis. During the first lockdown last March, all schools were closed except for vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers, but the November lockdown saw schools remain open to all. 

After being placed under considerable pressure by teaching unions, Boris Johnson’s administration made the decision to close all schools on 4  January, despite sending some primary school pupils back for just one day after the Christmas holidays. Addressing the public, the Prime Minister described schools as “vectors of transmission”, despite saying, only two days before, that “there is no doubt in my mind that schools are safe”.

Due to an atmosphere of hostility towards teaching unions – and by extension – teachers, it is perhaps unsurprising that those like Claire feel not listened to and unsupported. 

She describes her experience as “chaotic and unsettling”.

“We’ve had to travel on public transport to work and be there without safety measures, filling us with guilt and fear as everyone else is warned to stay home to save lives,” she told Byline Times. “We’ve been teaching without PPE (personal protective equipment), proper ventilation or the ability to socially distance with children as young as three who don’t understand it.  

“The Government is doing little to nothing about keeping us safe. As teachers we feel worthless and disrespected. Children have, until recently, had a low risk of being harmed by the virus, but they carry and spread it so what about the teachers, support staff, kitchen staff, cleaners and premises staff who keep our school running? Not to mention parents, grandparents and carers, many of whom are vulnerable themselves but had to send kids back to school in September or risk being fined? 

“If the virus is dangerous enough to keep workplaces closed, we feel that schools should be too. Before Christmas, our local councillor attempted to close schools a few days early to keep families safe. Unfortunately, (Education Secretary) Gavin Williamson threatened him and our headteachers with legal action causing distress and confusion in our schools.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Education told Byline Times that schools are still safe and that they have been “closed to most pupils during the lockdown not because they are unsafe, but because the Government is taking every possible measure to reduce cases in the community and protect the NHS”.

But Sam*, a secondary school teacher in west London, echoes Claire’s sentiments.

“It’s quite clear that teachers have been an afterthought in this whole process,” he told Byline Times. “Obviously, we want to make sure students are not losing out on years of education, but there has to be a compromise. We are capable of teaching remotely now, but the constant stop-start approach of the Government means that the students cannot settle into a daily rhythm of structured teaching. It seems very likely that the Government are making it up as they go along.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said that the Government “urgently needs to clarify its messaging” around schools.

*Names have been changed 

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