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LIZ GERARD: Number 10 must end the bullying and bluster to get us back in the office

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, wearing the school tie he was presented with on arrival, speaks to a class of year 7 pupils on their first day back at school. (Photo by Jack Hill - WPA Pool/ Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

There are compelling reasons to get people back to schools and workplaces. But it requires more attention to detail and less bullying and bluster than we have seen thus far, says LIZ GERARD.

That’s it. Summer’s over. Parliament is back in session. The kids are back at school. And you laptop slackers had jolly well better swap your pyjamas for a business suit. It’s time you went back to the office.

Not because it’s necessary for you to be there to do your job – you’ve proved over the past five months it isn’t. But because your country needs you to buy a paper and a latte at the station, pop out for a sandwich, catch an after-work spin class and then chill with a pint at the Dog and Bucket. All socially distanced of course.

Barely a week ago, it was our ‘moral duty’ to get children back into the classroom. They were suffering from the pause in their education; attainment gaps between rich and poor were growing; youngsters needed to see their friends.

Few would argue with that. But there was another reason: schools provide free childcare. And now children are ‘safely’ back in class, there’s no reason for their parents not to go out to work and spend their money in real shops to save real jobs rather than online, where they enrich only Mr Bezos.

It all makes sense, as many newspapers have been telling us for weeks. Some ‘libertarians’ would never have locked down or closed schools in the first place, and they have being beating their drum ever more loudly in recent days, demanding an end to working from home in columns filed from, er, home.

The Telegraph tried gentle threats in a front page splash warning people that if they didn’t turn up to the office, bosses might forget they existed, making them easy targets when it came to payroll cuts – a suggestion that earned the paper a rare slapdown from Downing Street.

A couple of days earlier, the Times was gunning for school truants (adult or parental) with a lead story reporting that teachers were ‘far more likely’ than pupils to transmit Covid. The educators, a PHE paediatrician said, needed to be educated. The conclusion was reached from analysis of 30 outbreaks in June and July – when most schools were closed to most pupils – which found that two thirds had been spread either between teachers or from teacher to pupil. The figures, the paper reported, represented 0.01% of all pre-schools and primary schools in England. Very little is known about transmission of the virus in schools. The BBC looked at data from PHE and found that only 18 of 6,000 studies considered whether children could pass it to adults, noting that there was ‘very little data available for secondary schools’ – where the risk is assumed to be higher. Yet, on the basis of a tiny proportion of institutions catering for the members of society least likely to contract or spread the virus, the Times was happy to convey the impression that, outside of work, teachers were being socially irresponsible.

The Sun seemed to share that view, accusing ‘militant’ teachers of ‘driving a hard-left wrecking ball’ through plans to get schools reopened by threatening to shut down schools if local coronavirus infection rates hit 50 in 100,000. The current national level is around 11, but locked-down towns like Oldham have seen rates as high as 85.

If holidaymakers have to quarantine after visiting countries with an incidence rate of 20 and anyone who has been in contact with someone who tests positive is supposed to self-isolate, what happens when someone in school gets the virus? Does everyone go home? It’s the key question everyone has been asking for months, but one the government doggedly refused to answer. Until the eleventh hour – literally.

It finally produced extensive advice at 11pm on the Friday before a bank holiday. It then rescinded one key instruction within minutes. ‘Shambolic’ and ‘reprehensible’ were among the more polite words used by heads who had to spend their final holiday weekend grappling with a 23,000-word document after a summer spent planning for full reopening this week.

Contrary to what some newspapers would have us believe, our teachers are not a bunch of lazy, long-haired lefties or dissolute incompetents out of Evelyn Waugh. By and large they are ordinary people who want to help kids to realise their personal and academic potential. As such, they are as eager and excited about getting back to the classroom as certain columnists are to be relieved of 24/7 parental responsibility. But they don’t want to risk their lives – or their families’ lives – in the process. Scroll through the timelines of teachers’ Facebook or WhatsApp groups and the discussions are about sharing resources, the best reference books, pastoral care strategies, catch-up material – and masks. There’s a lot about masks.

It’s not as simple as Boris Johnson’s ‘wear them in the corridor, but not in the classroom – that’s nonsensical’. Repeatedly taking them off and putting them on creates a hygiene issue. Where do the children put them when they are not in use? It takes little imagination to see how the whole procedure – combined with the sanitising of equipment and desks, not to mention all that hand-washing – could become a time-wasters’ charter.

What happens with the vulnerable teacher who has been forced back to work because shielding was decreed unnecessary from August 1? Do children wear masks in her classes, but not in others? Apart from the confusion that would cause, how would it affect the way her students viewed her? She may not want anyone to know that she has an underlying condition. Will advertising it by wearing a full visor or requiring masks in her classroom, when other teachers don’t, undermine her authority?

The key message coming out of government – and the press – is that schools are safe for pupils and that parents have nothing to fear in sending their children back. Last week’s newspapers were full of reassuring double-page advertorials ‘in association with the UK government’. But it is legitimate to demand that they should also be safe for teachers. If they don’t feel secure themselves, how can they be an emotional bedrock for their students, many of whom will have suffered stress and possibly bereavement through the pandemic? How many other workers are asked to spend all day in a 9m x 6m room with 30 other people, where social distancing is mathematically impossible? It’s not even legal in any other environment unless you’re all from one household. What about cover teachers who move from school to school – and whose services will doubtless be in much demand if infection rates rise? What about special needs provision that requires close-quarters one-to-one connections? Is it such an imposition to ask that temperatures be checked at the school door? That there should be an agreed mechanism to organise speedy Covid tests where necessary rather than leaving it to individuals?

Shared equipment is another issue. It’s clear that jam jars of communal scissors, rulers and pens had to go and it’s relatively easy to keep stationery within bubbles. But what about sewing machines in design and technology? Pots and pans in cookery? Keyboards and music stands? Vaulting horses, climbing ropes? Each bubble cannot have its own supply of these big-ticket items. If any equipment used by one bubble must be left untouched for 48 hours before being used by another, students of practical subjects are bound to miss out. It’s a timetabler’s nightmare.

It is not only safety and logistics that worry teachers. It’s education, education, education. If you cannot walk around the classroom and look over the children’s shoulders at their books, how do you know that the chap at the back hasn’t spent the entire lesson doodling?

How can schools ensure that vulnerable children who cannot physically go to school still get the attention they need? When will teachers who spend the day in school and all evening marking and preparing lessons find time to set up online work for those still at home?

There are also concerns about the government’s insistence that the whole curriculum must be covered, with no quarter given for the lost four months of the last academic year and the learning hiatus compounded by the summer holiday. Some children were assiduous in attending online classes and kept up to the mark by diligent parents. Others lacked the equipment or the peace and quiet a bedroom of their own affords. They have far more ground to make up. And, as the Times pointed out in a leader article notable for its social stereotyping of poor homes ‘where parental engagement is almost non-existent’, it will be the already disadvantaged who suffer most.

Teachers are desperate to avoid a repeat of the A-level algorithm fiasco and want a robust national assessment regime put in place now in case there is a second wave. They also want to see a plan B for any future lockdowns, with contingency arrangements ready so that poorer students are not left struggling without laptops or internet access, as happened this summer; that there is continuity of free school meals provision without the need for Premier League footballers to intervene.

The coronavirus hasn’t gone away. Infection rates have been rising steadily and there is an expectation that they will rise further once schools are back in full swing – Germany had to quarantine hundreds of people after a surge of cases within a fortnight of the term starting. The health secretary is already talking about ‘very extensive’ winter lockdowns.

Is it any wonder that teachers are apprehensive? Or that other employers are biding their time before encouraging staff back to the office? They have a legal responsibility to keep their workers safe; why expose anyone to health or litigation risks when everything is jogging along nicely, when staff are more productive at home, and when both employer and worker can save money in the process? Why worry about how everyone will get to a meeting on the 18th floor when there’s room for only one person at a time in the lift if you can ‘attend’ from your bedroom via Zoom?

That Telegraph story headlined ‘Go back to work or risk losing your job’ said that a government publicity campaign would ‘provide reassurance that the workplace is a safe place’. In the same issue, the paper reported that the daily infection rate was at its highest for three months. This, a Department of Health source said, was ‘down to specific isolated outbreaks at factories and other workplaces’. Not so safe then. The story also reported that the chancellor feared for businesses that depend on offices for their trade, and pointed to the 2,800 job cuts announced by Pret A Manger. But its ‘go back to work safely’ guide on page four included the advice ‘take a packed lunch’. Very helpful for the sandwich bar.

Of course the country has to get back to something like normality. Of course people are more nervous than perhaps they need be. But the landscape isn’t going to change at the snap of a finger just because Johnson and the press wish it. There are strong social and economic reasons for people to get back to the office. But if the government wants to entice us out, a little more attention to detail and genuine cause for reassurance might be more effective than ‘Buck up! Show that Great British bulldog spirit and get on with it!’ bluster.

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