The government has got it wrong again – reopening schools is not as simple as it seems

We are asking if it is safe for schools to reopen, and if the adults the children come home to, the teachers they interact with and the wider community they may carry the disease to, are safe too

Kimi Chaddah
Monday 24 August 2020 17:34 BST
Boris Johnson calls on parents to send children to school

The government has got it wrong.

No, not Brexit, classist algorithms, exam chaos, PPE – they’ve got it wrong about something else.

They are fighting an argument that simply doesn’t exist.

Echoing the words frequently uttered by our politicians, let me be clear: we are not simply asking if children are at risk from dying of coronavirus. We know, as Jenny Harries put it, “the risk to the child themselves is very small”. But we are asking if it is safe for schools to reopen, if the adults they come home to, the teachers they interact with and the wider community they may carry the disease to, are safe.

The idea of both children and adults being safe are empty words from a government that so frequently spoke about providing a “safety net” that crushed the dreams of thousands of students in the A-level fiasco, that threw a "protective ring" around care homes and then, quite literally, threw them to the wolves through employing orders of “Do Not Resuscitate” at the height of the pandemic.

Unlike many other jobs, competence is not on the specification for cabinet ministers. They do the photo-op in an empty school and avoid the opportunity to go when they’re open, they do the morning press rounds with all the drear and blunder of a candidate on The Apprentice, but they don’t attend COBRA meetings.

After blaming everybody from care homes and Bame people to nurses, the government is subtly crafting a separate story where teachers must not “drop their guard” in their coffee breaks, where a “well controlled school environment...should be relatively safe”, where the idea of pubs closing as a trade-off for schools opening has now faded into the background. It appears that school staff will get the blame if there is an outbreak.

This encapsulates the essence of the “world-beating” Tory blame-game. Blaming everybody but themselves.

The prime minister’s aides know to “keep memos short”. They won’t be able to mention the complete absence of a contingency plan for both a second wave and exams in 2021, the risk factors of being overweight, Bame or diabetic that increase one’s susceptibility to coronavirus. They will, however, regurgitate ingrained political messaging of schools being safe, based upon evidence from when schools were 10 per cent full and socially distanced.

As for the plan in winter if a second wave were to arrive? There is no plan A, let alone plan B; back-up plans are not this government’s forte. We are not an “exemplar in preparedness”. The lack of communication is again staggering: there is the complete absence of a contingency plan for 2021 exams for students who have lost months of learning, no mention of how schools should respond to an inevitable outbreak, reinforcing their strategy of “ignorance is bliss”. It’s only a matter of time before “Get Coronavirus Done” comes into force.

In exploiting personal fears in favour of promoting political agenda, the government is failing to take account of detail, mirroring their response to A-level results. A parent’s worst nightmare would indeed be the death of a child, and Harries insisted that death in a car crash was likelier for a child than death by coronavirus. But there are many individual nightmares for a child: the loss of a parent, a grandparent, or the adults who contribute to the very education they receive are too real possibilities come September. Nevertheless, the government still tries to cling on to the naïve sense of exceptionalism and invincibility that pervades political propaganda. We were supposed to turn the tide in 12 weeks, remember?

We are left in a country where trust in policies has dissipated, where the government panders to the ideology of herd immunity, confidence in ministers has eroded and the once elevated “well-developed public health systems” are being dismantled. Any respect for the rules dissipated when Dominic Cummings took a trip to Barnard Castle to, as it stands, check his eyesight.

It is no secret that the government's paradoxical policies are economically driven; they will invest in polished marketing campaigns, find a “magic money tree” and propel the “eat out to help out" scheme. However, the idea of providing funds for schools for extra cleaning and materials to keep children and teachers safe is otherworldly. Seventeen teachers at a school in Dundee have contracted the coronavirus.

In September, capitalism will again triumph as children are ordered back to school and parents back to offices, but this time without masks or social distancing. Safety measures remain clouded in ambiguity, relationships are now transactional, lives expendable and political messaging indistinguishable from “following the science”.

This is not the heavily simplified narrative of getting children back into classrooms, or the gaslighting rhetoric of teachers being “heroes”.

We are all to some extent craving normality, structure, routine and interaction – but not at the cost of sacrificing lives.

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