OPINION
04/01/2021 13:45 GMT

If The Government Really Wanted Schools Open, They Would Vaccinate Teachers First

Children need their teachers – but teachers apparently don’t need protection from Covid, writes Kate Townshend.

PA
Pupils arrive at Manor Park School and Nursery in Knutsford, Cheshire, as schools across England return after the Christmas break.

How can you value education without valuing teachers? It’s a joke with no punchline really, because the truth is you can’t. But we’ve seen people give it a really good try in recent months.

As Covid-19 continues to impact our lives, once again we’re hearing everyone from government ministers to controversial” commentators insisting that schools are so vital, so fundamental to children’s wellbeing, that they need to be open wherever possible – even as infections and hospitalisations soar.

If that’s the case, then teachers must be first in line for the vaccine. 

I’m a teacher, so I know firsthand that schools make a big difference to children. I know they provide not just academic education but emotional support and guidance, and a community of adults for children to rely on beyond their immediate family.

But it frustrates me to no end that this lip service homage to education as a force for good often stops short of recognising and valuing the staff delivering it.

Schools are vitally important, people say, but teachers should be willing to risk their health in classrooms where social distancing is impossible.

Children need their teachers, but teachers apparently don’t need the PPE that might protect them from the virus.

And while, yes, it’s a blessing that the risk for children attending school is small, what about the risk to the adults charged with caring for them?

What’s even worse is that teachers who dare to challenge this narrative – those who question the idea that, in all circumstances, children’s need for education outweighs staff’s right to have their health protected – are often accused of being lazy or uncaring. But an exhausted and frightened workforce can’t do the best for their students anyway, and so it’s worth repeating again for the people at the back: you can’t separate out the importance of teachers from the importance of education.

The other particularly cynical approach to guilting teachers into showing up comes with attempts to pit different types of key workers against one another.

I am full of admiration for NHS staff and supermarket workers. And I don’t believe that teachers are uniquely vulnerable, but I do know that we are able to armour other workers more effectively against possible dangers. When people say: “Well the supermarket staff are going in without complaining…” they are wilfully missing the point.

If we’re really serious about valuing education, then the only sensible thing is to vaccinate – and value – our teachers too.

Over the weekend, the UK’s largest teaching union the NEU instructed its members that fully opened schools are not safe and they should work from home, or only be responsible for key worker and vulnerable children for the first two weeks of January.

Four hundred thousand people attended an emergency zoom meeting held by the union on Sunday discussing this issue, which does rather suggest safety is a topic of universal concern for school staff.

And let’s be honest – this instruction to move to online learning “follows the science” far more than the government appears to be doing right now. 

But again, you won’t find many people better placed than teachers themselves to explain how frustrating and sad this is.

Of course, we would prefer to be in classrooms. Face to face teaching is hard, yes, but it also delivers the rewards that explain why so many people choose the profession in the first place. Really, nobody wants to see children fall behind or not achieve their full potential – east of all teachers.

So here’s a radical idea for Boris and co: If, as we all agree, education is so important, if this is really about protecting children’s life chances, then school staff need to be higher on the list when it comes to vaccinations.

If you want schools to stay open, then show teachers you value them by enabling them to do their jobs safely. The usual safety measures that work to keep key workers safe – from PPE to social distancing – don’t apply when you’re spending your day with touchy feely little children or rebellious teenagers.

Right now for us, it’s either cross your fingers, spritz on your sanitiser like perfume and hope for the best, or don’t show up at all.

Vaccinations show what we value. It’s absolutely right and sensible that we value NHS staff and care workers; that we value the elderly and the vulnerable.

But if we’re really serious about valuing education, then the only sensible thing is to vaccinate – and value – our teachers too.

Kate Townshend is a teacher and freelance writer.