‘We need greater flexibility’: teachers and parents on potential Covid school closures

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Secondary schools in Wales have moved to online learning ahead of Christmas. Should the rest of the UK follow?

Secondary school pupils moving by a window
Decisions over keeping schools open has become a flashpoint with many parents and teachers. Photograph: Peter Lopeman/Alamy Stock Photo
Decisions over keeping schools open has become a flashpoint with many parents and teachers. Photograph: Peter Lopeman/Alamy Stock Photo

Last modified on Mon 14 Dec 2020 23.37 EST

Secondary schools and colleges in Wales switched to online learning today for the remainder of the term, in an attempt to reduce coronavirus transmissions ahead of the festive season. But Scotland, Northern Ireland and England are set to keep schools open until the Christmas break.

With the decision over schools fast becoming a new flashpoint, the Guardian spoke to parents and teachers to ask how they feel …

‘We’re not asking for a holiday’

“I think the government have shown once again they’re willing to throw the wellbeing of teachers and students in the public sector under the bus,” said Amarbeer Singh, a secondary school teacher in Kent. “We’re not asking for a holiday, we would still be working, just teaching online.”

Singh said he was concerned that keeping schools open would unnecessarily force teachers to risk the health of their loved ones at Christmas, and could mean that both staff and students could miss out on a much-needed break.

Amarbeer Singh
Amarbeer Singh Photograph: Amarbeer Singh/Guardian Community

“We don’t celebrate Christmas, but it’s an ongoing concern as I’m going to be home with my family for two weeks and my parents are elderly. I don’t want to go home for the holidays and for my family member to get ill because of me,” he said.

“But I’m worried about the students as well. Students have had an incredibly tough time at school this year between isolating, missing out on learning, and then having to catch-up. Finishing a week early would have gone a long way to just allowing students to have a little break and sense of normality before coming back in January.”

‘There should be greater flexibility’

University lecturer Cathy Turner, whose daughter is in secondary school, said there should be greater flexibility in the decision to close or open schools, according to local transmission rates and school circumstances.

“In Exeter, where I live the rates have mainly been quite low, so it’s often not felt too difficult for children to go to school,” she said. “But as the rates [of coronavirus transmission] have gone up recently, it feels like it might be good if the headteacher could make a call on it. Hearing about the amount of variation in the rates, and how in some areas its gone from very low to very high, it feels like it’s quite a local judgement.”

Like many parents and teachers who wrote to the Guardian via a call out, Turner said she did have concerns about her daughter picking up the virus at school, especially given that self-isolating from tomorrow (Tues) would mean missing Christmas Day.

“My mum is over 80 and we’re planning to spend Christmas with her, and it would be very hard to say that we couldn’t do that, but there isn’t enough time between the end of the last week and Christmas to be absolutely sure,” Turner said.

‘Children deserve their education’

“I’ve worked with children for more than 40 years, and I know that in schools and nurseries, we are their safe place,” said Linda Pirie, a 59-year-old early years teacher in Aberdeenshire. “We know that here, they have a meal and two snacks if they’re here all day, and someone to talk to and show them care.”

Pirie described unions’ calls for schools to switch to remote learning in the run-up to Christmas “nonsense”.

Linda Pirie
Linda Pirie Photograph: Linda Pirie/Guardian Community

“I’ve not felt unsafe at all, and I’m higher risk than some of the people I’m working with,” she said. “We had our first case just over two weeks ago, and the child came into contact with 22 other children and 10 adults, and nobody contracted the virus.”

Pirie also said she feared that having children at home would make it harder for parents to keep their jobs, and that missing in-person education would have a long-term impact on the children.

“Children deserve their education,” she said.

‘My eldest daughter sobbed down the phone because she feared she’d given me coronavirus’

For Sandra*, a social worker who lives in West Yorkshire and is shielding, schools should close in the run up to Christmas to ease the burden on shielding families.

“As a social worker, I understand the arguments that you need schools more for childcare than education and that there are many vulnerable kids out there for whom school is important,” she said. “But I think it’s easier to have that viewpoint with younger children, because there are more options for content to support their learning at home. I can’t teach my 17 year old daughter her A levels.”

Sandra also said that arguments about the importance of being in school for children’s mental health didn’t consider the pressure it put the children of shielding parents under.

“In October, both my daughters were sent home because they’d been in contact with people who tested positive, and my eldest daughter sobbed down the phone because she feared she’d given it to me,” she said.

“I couldn’t get up and down the stairs to bring them food to their rooms, so I had to stay in my bedroom for 23 hours a day. Every day she knows she could bring something home and kill a parent.”