A flock of schoolchildren wind their way through the street like a slinky toy. They pass in pairs, dwarfed by rucksacks with chiming, mismatched key-chains. Some are raucous and bustle against their daydreaming peers. Teachers punctuate this sweeping curve like axis points and shepherd the group over the main road. Briefly, this procession parts the urban hustle — like a duck leading ducklings through stilled traffic. Moments like these are mundane, but as schoolchildren returned to school this September, there’s something celebratory in the return of these small rituals. How well have schools prepared for coronavirus this September? How long will such small glimpses of normalcy remain?
According to the Trust For London, Tower Hamlets, where Aiano’s has been based for the last 160 years, has the highest child poverty rate in the country. Around 57% of children live in poverty — that’s more than one in every pair that passes me by. This is well above the average rate, which itself is shocking. The Child Poverty Action Group estimates that an average of 9 children in a classroom of 30 will live in poverty.
To lift these children out of poverty, education is vital. Even before the effects of coronavirus were taken into account, an annual report by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) found that the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers had stopped closing for the first time in 10 years.
In fact, it may have increased. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) estimates that the gap between disadvantaged and wealthy pupils has widened by as much as 46%. Returning children to schools returns parents to work, but the education gap was what Boris Johnson invoked in August when he declared that reopening schools was a ‘moral duty’. Schools have since re-opened their doors for a month – and the UK coronavirus alert level has hurtled to 4.
So does re-opening schools amplify transmission? How are schools managing that risk? And how prepared are schools for a spike in cases? We ere given wildly varying answers to this question. But there was one consistent factor: for the 4.2 million children living in child poverty in the UK, re-closing schools and resuming virtual teaching would be devastating.
Does re-opening schools amplify transmission?
How do pupils catch coronavirus? How does coronavirus affect them? And how do pupils spread it? These are the questions asked by headteachers across the country as schools prepared for September. Unfortunately, there are no definite answers. One study found that cases in children under the age of 16 represented 1.1% of positive cases between January and May 2020. However, scientists also agree that it is not always obvious when a child has coronavirus. Because of this, there is increasing concern that children may be silent carriers of the disease.
When questioned by the BBC in August, Paul Hunter, Professor of Medicine at Norwich Medical School, admitted that even if schools prepared for coronavirus effectively, it was ‘quite likely’ that the R number (the rate of transmission) would increase when schools re-opened. Paul Hunter was right. According to the government website, the R number across England at the end of August was 0.9-1%, and by the end of September it had risen to 1.3-1.6%. However, this rise cannot be totally attributed to the reopening of schools. The ‘eat out to help out’ scheme, the return of holidaymakers, the return of workers to offices, and ‘pandemic fatigue’ have all contributed.
To understand schoolchildren’s role in transmission, we first have to specify what we mean by the word ‘children’. Children above 10 and below 10 transmit the virus differently. Primary and secondary schools had to prepare for coronavirus differently. Primary-school-age children are less likely to socially distance, and more likely to need tactile care from their teachers. One of the main ways of preventing Covid-19 infection is limiting social contact to ‘bubbles’, and bubbling primary school children is relatively easy: one class, one teacher, little need for overlap. Because small children’s symptoms differ from adult cases, and are more likely to be mild, it’s hard to truly gauge their role in transmission. Small children are less likely to develop a cough, and even if they do, the cough is likely to be weak or infrequent. This means that the amount of infectious particles produced is reduced.
As the UK Research and Innovation group summarise, the current scientific consensus is the following: small children are less likely to acquire the virus and are less likely to pass it on. Of course, Covid-19 is a new disease, and this consensus could change. But it’s the return of secondary schoolchildren to schools that makes scientists like Paul Hunter and policy advisors like Neil Ferguson most anxious.
According to the Office for National Statistics, the current infection rates have been highest among teenagers and young adults. After all, teenagers are behaviourally more likely to contract and transmit the virus than small children. This is because they are harder to supervise and have more close social contact. The risk is amplified by the fact that secondary schools are larger, that students often arrive by public transport, and that unlike primary schools, students require different subject teachers to come in and out of class. These are some of the reasons that primary schools and secondary schools had to prepare for coronavirus differently.
Are schools prepared for coronavirus: percentage of fully open Secondary Schools. Source
How have UK schools prepared for coronavirus?
As countries around the world deliberated over the education of their students and the re-opening of schools, how well did our government prepare? The teachers I spoke to mentioned being sent amended guidelines at 5:30pm the Friday before term re-started. This did not inspire them with confidence. One teaching assistant, Emma, in a secondary school in Tower Hamlets, described ‘anger at the lack of consistency’ and contempt for the ‘arrogance’ of decision-makers in Westminster.
‘Schools have been well supported by the local authority,’ was Sarah’s opinion, a representative for a large teachers’ union, ‘but the wider government have (sic) not been good’. She praised the majority of headteachers and senior leadership teams in her area for being supportive of their staff, but warned that she didn’t know ‘how long schools can carry on as-is’. An ominous prediction, but is this opinion shared by educators across the country?
Measures currently in place in schools
To ensure schools prepared for coronavirus, the government issued 5 main guidelines. The first requirement is that children and staff who are ill with coronavirus symptoms — or who have family members who are ill with coronavirus symptoms — stay at home. The others include robust hand and respiratory hygiene measures, enhanced cleaning, and social distancing where possible. To limit the likelihood of transmission, schools have divided their students and staff into ‘bubbles’ or ‘pods’. In primary schools, this might be one class and one teacher. In secondary schools, this might be a year group or half a year group, to allow for more specialised subjects to be taught.
These are the government guidelines, but how successful have these measures been in practice? ‘The COVID policy amounts to hand-gel,’ said Jamie, a teacher at an academy-run primary school. ‘There has been no social distancing.’ I asked Jamie if he would feel safe teaching if there was a rise in cases, or if he was physically vulnerable. He answered that ‘with the current lack of precautions, I wouldn’t feel comfortable staying in a second-wave.’
‘Some teachers feel like sacrificial lambs,’ Amy told me, a state secondary school teacher in London. She informed me that although her school was doing the best it could to protect staff and pupils, some teachers were having to ‘cross pods’ to provide specialist teaching. Some teachers in her school felt worried or at risk. These stories are alarming, but most teachers I spoke to reflected Amy’s sentiment: schools had prepared for coronavirus as best as they could, but with limited space and resources there was only so much they could do.
While teachers clean down their classrooms between lessons, there are inevitable congregations in corridors. And when the school bell tolls at the end of the day, teachers look on hopelessly as pupils and their families mingle. In our conversation, Sarah predicted that staggering parents and students during drop-off and pick-up will only become harder as the weather becomes wetter and colder.
As schools prepared for coronavirus, they collided with logistical issues. Schools are ill-equipped to accommodate proper social distancing, and modern schools — Sarah told me — may not even have windows that open. Even schools with enhanced facilities, like the prestigious boarding school whose teacher, Ralph, I spoke to, cannot provide a totally Covid-secure space. ‘No school is built to accommodate social distancing,’ he admits. Because space is limited, so is the effectiveness of controls.
On top of catching up with a term of lost or limited teaching, Covid-19 measures have strained school working environments. The teachers I spoke to commented that there is an enormous pressure on their workloads. ‘It’s really difficult to get the kids to take the rules seriously,’ Amy tells me, a sentiment reflected by other secondary school teachers.
Teachers have had to take on extra cleaning duties, shorten their breaks, and ignore the noise pollution caused by leaving windows and doors open, diminishing the quality of their lessons. Teachers and teaching staff have also found it difficult being isolated to the very front of the class. ‘I can’t do my job,’ said teaching assistant Emma. Struggling students are often too shy to ask for help. Teaching assistants normally pace the classroom to offer discreet aid. Teaching assistants have adapted, instead pulling students out for isolated discussions after class, but Emma fears struggling students will fall through the net.
With so much added stress, teachers welcomed the government’s announcement of a pay rise of between 2.75% — 5.5%. But Ben, a rural primary school teacher, is sceptical. ‘Where will this money come from?’ he asks. It will need to come from within school budgets, and after years of underfunding and budget cuts, Ben warns that ‘some schools won’t be able to provide the additional money’.
The pay rise also excludes other school support staff – teaching assistants like Emma – along with school caretakers and kitchen and admin staff, all of whom are working harder than ever before, and without whom the school system would fall apart.
Lack of tests: testing UK schools’ patience and resources
‘You’re sat wondering if you could be teaching,’ said Jamie. He isolated himself after becoming unwell. Now he feels better, but can’t return to school until he’s been tested. Jamie’s headteacher promised they would send him a test, but that test never came. Are schools prepared for coronavirus if they haven’t got access to effective testing practices?
I hear similar stories from other frustrated teachers. ‘You would have thought they would have prioritised tests for children and teachers,’ says Ben, a teacher in a rural primary school. Two of Ben’s colleagues have isolated themselves with potential symptoms. After 48 hours of trying to get through to the testing service, both teachers had to travel more than an hour and a half to be tested. ‘They were told that there were no available tests in the South,’ Ben says. In a small primary school like Ben’s, the absence of two teachers strains an already tense situation.
It’s not just teachers who are having a difficult time getting tests. Ben tells me that in his small class, 2-3 different children are off each week with vague illnesses. That child’s class ‘bubble’ usually remains in school, potentially infected, and potentially infecting their loved ones at home. But when a case is confirmed, and a ‘pod’ or ‘bubble’ of schoolchildren are told to self-isolate, this prompts a new set of problems.
Sarah, the union representative, told me that delays in testing children within isolating ‘bubbles’ has had greater implications for teacher absences than teachers being unable to get tests. Why? Childcare. If a teacher’s child is sent home as part of an infected ‘bubble’, that teacher will have to take time off work to take care of them. Unless a teacher’s child is tested swiftly, that teacher is off work – potentially for a fortnight, and potentially pointlessly.
It seems that local councils and schools prepared for coronavirus diligently, but that the government and track and trace system does not have adequate testing capacity. ‘It wouldn’t take too many teachers to be off for the school to shut completely,’ says Daisy, a teacher in an academy-run secondary school. Daisy’s school was a special measures school until it was taken on by an academy trust. At her school, 40% of pupils qualify for pupil premium, which means that 40% of pupils live under the poverty line. She says that because of her school’s accreditation, it’s difficult to get supply teaching. In March, her school was forced to close prior to lockdown because they ‘ran out of staff to run the school’.
But not everyone is worried about testing. The difference between how private and state schools prepared for coronavirus this term is vast. According to the Independent Schools Association (ISA) and the Independent Association of Prep Schools (IAPS), private schools are investing in testing equipment. Eton college tested at least 1,300 students privately at the beginning of term, with ‘a few’ students testing positive and being placed under isolation. The Guardian also reported that Benenden School, a boarding school in Kent, purchased a £35,000 testing machine at the beginning of term.
Online Learning: An adequate solution to a second-wave?
Failure to allocate sufficient testing for schools, along with the Department of Education’s initiative to get schools on the online platform Microsoft Teams, suggests that the government anticipates schools’ closure and a return to online teaching. But what consequences would this have for schoolchildren? For the 4.2 million children who live in poverty across the UK, they’ll be devastating ones. ‘It became clear that many students didn’t have access to laptops, or were sharing one laptop between their family,’ Daisy told me.
I heard a variant of this sentence from every state primary and secondary school educator I have spoken to. ‘A lot of kids were accessing the lesson via phones and submitting their work very late,’ she continues. Daisy’s school, like most of the others schools I speak to, took advantage of the government’s scheme to provide laptops and wireless routers to disadvantaged students during lockdown.
Although this has certainly made a vast difference, it is clear from the teachers I speak to that it is an imperfect solution. When Daisy did receive completed work, it was obvious that many of her students had misunderstood the work. She emphasised that this was particularly obvious in homework from children with special needs or who came from chaotic backgrounds, but she is unable to give these pupils the support they would have received in school.
Most schools prepared for coronavirus this September by investing energy into setting up online learning portals. Ben, a rural primary school teacher, also commented that the move towards online teaching in spring had been fraught. He described most of the teachers in his school as ‘technologically illiterate’ and added that younger staff members took on an increased workload to help their colleagues make the transition.
But what Ben criticised most fervently was the lack of clear government guidelines. Although Ben’s school supplied a plethora of remote learning activities, he was aware of schools in the local area that did very little or nothing at all. ‘You’d have thought after two or three weeks of online teaching, there would be some guidance,’ he explained. With such lack of clarity, it is unsurprising that Jamie’s primary academy school in London advised him to ‘assume the pupils have not learnt anything during the last 6 months’.
Jamie, like other teachers, was anxious about having to squeeze in a whole spring term of teaching besides the autumn curriculum. This disruption has already left a lasting imprint. Anna, a teacher in a state secondary school, commented that the incoming Year Seven cohort had the lowest literacy score on record. She expressed concern about teaching a syllabus which centred around reading aloud, when it was obvious many of her students had lost confidence in their literacy abilities.
Amy the state secondary school teacher, said that two of her pupils arrived back after isolating with their parents, both Spanish migrants, unable to speak English. Even with online learning, and even if more laptops are distributed to disadvantaged students, without proper IT support, a quiet area to study in, and parents who are free to expend energy supervising their children, some school pupils may lose out by isolating at home.
This is less likely for students at well-facilitated private schools like Ralph’s. Private schools prepared for coronavirus with the assistance of bespoke IT departments and the latest technologies. ‘Our SEN [special educational needs] students are actually doing better,’ Ralph told me. Each department in Ralph’s school has its own designated IT support staff on hand to help teachers. They have been able to create interactive and dynamic lessons. ‘The transition has been seamless,’ Ralph continued. ‘We haven’t lost any time.’ In light of this, Ralph was not concerned about the prospect of resuming online teaching.
With parents paying upwards of £23,000 on their child’s tuition per year, it is not a surprise that they get their moneys’ worth. The polarity in facilities was what Jamie, the primary school academy teacher, expressed most concern about. Having taught in a private secondary school during the first Covid-19 wave, Jamie took for granted the specialised IT support and high-level engagement facilitated through cutting-edge technology. The reality, as Jamie would find out, for the 93.5% of students who do not go to private school, is far bleaker.
But closing schools across the country isn’t just a bleak prospect for students. Sarah, the teacher’s union representative, thought that that infection rates would spike if schools had to send more students home. Even if parents work from home, it is unrealistic and unfair to expect that students will be strictly supervised. Without supervising schoolchildren — especially teenagers — in a controlled school environment, young people are more likely to mix, ignore social distancing measures, and spread the disease between each other and their families.
Are schools prepared for coronavirus alongside a bitter winter?
As schools prepared for coronavirus, they may have overlooked one crucial aspect: heating. Schools are being advised to keep windows and doors open, and as days are getting chillier classrooms are left exposed to the elements. As research conducted by Cornell University shows, when the temperature falls below optimum temperature (which the Healthy and Safety Executive advise to be between 16°C and 24°C), employees made up to 44% more mistakes. Translate this to the classroom this year, and schools are faced with a conundrum: schools prepared for coronavirus but did they prepare to ensure the thermal comfort of their students?
This year, schools will have to crank up the heating to mitigate the escaped heat. This is an expensive prospect which schools can hardly afford. The government may have issued a £650m catch-up scheme, but after years of budget cuts and financial strain, unions warn this will make little difference.
Schools prepared for coronavirus should also prepare to provide adequate thermal comfort. But cranking up the dials of the radiator also increases the risk of burns. In old school buildings, traditional gas radiators and the surrounding pipework can quickly notch up to temperatures of 75°C. It is unsurprising then, that 1 in 5 burn injuries of children aged 0-15 are related to contact with hot surfaces like radiators. Installing wire-mesh guards this year can help schools pump out heat and still ensure the safety and thermal comfort of their students.
C.Aiano & Sons supply a range of wire-mesh guards and offer a bespoke experience for schools. Our hand-crafted wire guards are lightweight, easy to install, and strong enough to deal with all the knocks and bumps of busy school life. Some of the intelligent solutions we have provided schools include installing bespoke, colourful designs — perfect to create a cheery atmosphere in this strange and uncertain time, whilst also ensuring visibility for partially-sighted students. For more information, check out the C. Aiano & Sons shop.
Local councils and schools going above and beyond to keep our kids in school
Just down the road from me in Tower Hamlets, a new drop-in testing site has opened. This happened after the local council ran a two-month campaign. Local councillor Rachel Blake said: ‘It’s vital that this new test centre adds much-needed local testing capacity for our community. Our plans to keep schools and front-line public services open rely on an effective testing system.’ Tower Hamlets now has one of the highest levels of Covid-19 in London.
It is likely that without this access to local testing, the party of schoolchildren that passed by me like ducklings would be isolating at home. Confronted with inconsistent government advice, limited facilities and an ill-prepared test and trace system, local authorities and schools have worked together to go above and beyond to prepare for, and facilitate, the return of students this September.
More than any year in recent history, World Teacher’s Day on Monday 5th October served as a poignant reminder of the tremendous service and care our teachers and teaching assistants continue to provide amid this pandemic. We are frequently told to adjust to a ‘new normal’, but as schools and councils grapple with varying resources and varying degrees of success, it is increasingly clear there is no shared ‘normal’. Are schools prepared for coronavirus? We can only hope that with better testing facilities, schools are able to remain as fully open as possible and that this new ‘normal’ does not divert disadvantaged children further away from their potential.
Aiano & Sons, Ltd. has been making wire guards for health & safety and security for more than 150 years. From our London workshop, AIANO makes a wide range of products for tubular heaters, storage, panel and convector heaters, fluorescent light fittings, floodlights, bulkheads, sensors and many more..
Our products help to provide health and safety protection in a variety of industrial and public environments from warehouses to the factory floor, in schools and hospitals. As well as Bespoke guards AIANO stocks a wide range of guards for popular makes of heater as well as many other types of wire mesh guards for health and safety purposes. AIANO also has decades of experience designing bespoke wire guards for particular customer needs and requirements.
Please call us on 020 7987 1184 or email us if you would like to discuss your requirements, or for further information or advice on AIANO heater guards.