As we find ourselves looking down the barrel of a second national lockdown, it’s a strange time to be a teacher.
We aren’t immune to the terrifying figures revealed in press conferences and commons debates. We understand the projections of deaths higher than all previous reasonable worst case scenarios. We understand increasing prevalence of the virus in almost all corners of the UK.
We also understand, of course, the potentially devastating impact of taking children out of schools again – and why it should be a last resort.
I’d argue we understand it better than many people do because we see the difference education can make – especially in the lives of children who might be lacking support and stability elsewhere. The truth is, it’s why most of us do the job.
So I’ll be honest, the relentless teacher bashing that seems to be standard whenever staff raise safety concerns about schools remaining open, is already getting pretty old.
“It is possible to be both deeply concerned about the wellbeing of children and yet also not want to get Covid ourselves or pass it onto our vulnerable loved ones.”
“Won’t somebody please think of the children?” is how the narrative begins, reasonably enough. But a quick scroll through the social media of your choice will usually show it swiftly descending into accusations that teachers are simply lazy and scenting after a cheeky few weeks of extra holiday.
Last time, it was suggested we were all sitting at home, counting the money from our generous salaries and laughing as children’s educational chances slithered down the drain.
This time, we’re desperate, apparently, for the chance to vegetate on our lazy backsides again – unwilling to do our bit like the doctors and the nurses and the supermarket workers.
But the truth is, it is possible to be both deeply concerned about the wellbeing of children and yet also not want to get Covid ourselves or pass it onto our vulnerable loved ones.
“We’re the only key workers expected to continue on the frontline without PPE or basic protections, exposed to tens of contacts a day, children and adults.”
And what the genuinely unpleasant levels of vitriol directed at teachers fail to account for is the fact that those working in education are in a uniquely challenging situation.
Teachers didn’t “have six months off” during lockdown. They were teaching online, or in schools looking after key worker and vulnerable children – often trying to do both simultaneously.
Schools have tirelessly pulled their sleeves up in the face of last minute, confusing government announcements, doing their best despite knowing they’ll be damned either way.
But most importantly, we’re the only key workers expected to continue on the frontline without PPE or basic protections, exposed to tens of contacts a day, children and adults.
And this idea that schools aren’t transmission focused is looking increasingly dubious, with Office for National Statistics figures estimating that 1% of primary pupils and 2% of secondary pupils have the virus, and that these levels have increased dramatically since wider opening in September.
“Why is it simply a given that teachers should be willing to hurl themselves against the barricades, regardless of the risks this might entail?”
I worry for my older colleagues, for my colleagues with asthma – and I find myself increasingly incensed by arguments that schools are “covid secure” now.
Yes, we have staggered start times and year group bubbles and hand sanitiser everywhere (all measures that schools themselves have organised and implemented). But the truth is, bigger changes from higher up the chain are also required.
Schools need more space and more staff to really make things as safe as they can be, but, thus far. the government has been unwilling to countenance suggestions or work with education leaders to achieve this.
Then there are the people who waive away arguments that school closures might be necessary by pointing out how unlikely children and young people are to become severely ill.
Every teacher I know is glad that this is (for the most part) the case, (though presumably some of the older family members of these children are less protected).
But again why is the wellbeing of the adults who work in education settings so unimportant as to barely even merit a mention? Why is it simply a given that, as long as it’s OK for children, teachers and support staff should be willing to hurl themselves against the barricades, regardless of the risks this might entail?
Like many people, in the end I began to view the “clap for our carers” initiative over the spring and summer with some skepticism – after all, as nice as regard and appreciation are, proper financial support and decent working conditions matter more.
But the final insult to injury in all of this is that teachers and schools mostly don’t even seem to be worthy of the appreciation.
The very people who are so quick to accuse teachers of being lazy and irresponsible and not really caring enough are the same ones telling us that schools are of vital importance. That’s some truly impressive double-think.
The truth is – I don’t know if I want schools to close or not. The truth is, I feel very torn. I want to be at work, doing my best to make a difference in the lives of children, but I want myself and my colleagues and our families to be safe too.
Surely, as a society, we ought to be able to recognise this complexity without saying awful things about the people to whom we entrust the care of our children.
Kate Townshend is a freelance writer and teacher.