While the rest of the country has been urged to work from home and distance socially, I, a primary school teacher in London, continue to work alongside 28 nine- and ten-year olds. My days are currently spent painting on a ‘business as usual’ smile, quashing myths and rumours, while inadequately being able to answer the children’s many questions myself.
“If the virus mutates, will it come back stronger, and more deadly?” one asked today. I feel unable to answer, not wanting to scare them but equally wanting to tell them the truth.
“Will you do YouTube lessons for us if we do close?” asks another. I assure them that should we close, they will be supported. They nod a solemn, unanimous response, none of them wanting to miss any of their education, and each grateful they won’t be alone.
You’d think that an air of excitement akin to a snow day would be prevalent, but there isn’t any of that. The atmosphere and mood in the school is instead tense. Opinions among the staff vary. Some give hourly updates on the numbers of new cases, bemoaning the government’s refusal to comply with the rest of Europe and close. Others are trying to trust Boris Johnson’s decisions, arguing that we need to have confidence in the national advice.
“Around me everything is closing down – theatres, pubs, workplaces. So why are schools remaining open?”
I flit between the two. Surely, if the situation here were that severe, schools would close? Should we carry on? After all, these children can never get this opportunity for education back again. Or, is it socially irresponsible to continue to come into contact with over 200 people a day? Is our school acting as nothing more than breeding grounds for miniature super-carriers, who may show no symptoms themselves and thus have no idea that they are spreading it?
As society is urged to work from home and distance socially, thousands of teachers, like me, are left in a vulnerable limbo. Three of our teachers suffer from autoimmune diseases themselves, yet continue on the front line in class. They’re under even more stress and anxiety than the rest of us, and feel conflicted; having to choose between putting themselves first, or burdening other staff with teaching their classes too, and leaving the children they teach without them. As a staff, we want to support them. Yet something’s stopping them coming forward and making self-interested decisions to self-isolate, because the sense of camaraderie and ‘for the children’ mantra integral to teaching remains intact.
I feel worry and frustration going in each day, with so little guidance and advice from our leaders. None of the teachers are clear on why the schools are not yet closing, if at all – or how at risk we each are. It feels as if we are just expected to get the virus ourselves, as part of a national effort to prioritise the economy and childcare. Around me everything is closing down – theatres, pubs, workplaces. So why are schools remaining open?
We can only follow the government’s advice: wash your hands and keep each other safe. I was advised to show my class the NHS ‘wash your hands’ video, which was met with bemused, indignant disapproval – they feel patronised by the funny hand character. So I decided to show them some children’s viral TikTok hand-washing video from the streets of Vietnam, which we dance to in the classroom instead. It feels laughable that the best I can do is encourage them to wash their hands four times a day, while so much of the UK and Europe announces closures.
What all staff can agree on is that there is a lack of clear guidance and protection. We are being advised to come in as normal, keep the children calm and encourage them to sneeze into their sleeves. Parents stop me in the playground, searching my eyes for signs of secretly held information, which doesn’t exist.
“In a career so reliant on questioning and rapport with the children, the idea of them sitting alone, staring at a screen for an indefinite period of time is distressing.”
Teachers have started to make home packs for potential closures, which all feels very uncertain. Our current policy on home working is a work in progress. We’re scrabbling together emergency resource kits – scanning old textbooks that we don’t have enough for one each of, and making packs for those without their own tablet at home to have the hard copies. With no official guidance from the Department for Education, we are pooling our internal resources for self-study at home. It feels ridiculous that schools are all separately struggling with individual ideas which we are inventing ourselves, and it is frustrating that there is not a collaborative national effort coming from the DfE.
In a career so reliant on questioning and rapport with the children, the idea of them sitting alone, staring at a screen for an indefinite period of time is distressing. What about key workers’ children, or those whose parents do not speak English – how will we support them? I worry that the same children who struggle through homework alone each week will have little to no adult support, or anyone to read to or with them. I worry for the children on Free School Meals, to the extent my teacher friends and I are trying to come up with our own ideas for how to get food to the children.
The ones I worry for most are the vulnerable children. Those whose only nourishing meal comes from school each day, or the ones sharing squalid conditions in a studio flat. How do we ensure they continue to gain equal opportunity for education, if we shut the doors on their one safe space?
I am not a scientist. I don’t know what the best decision for keeping our society safe is. But what I do know is that until they lock the gate, I’ll remain the daily haven for the ones who need me most.
Bella Fields is a primary school teacher in London, writing under a pseudonym
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