There are obvious reasons why some teachers might feel fearful about returning to school. Like the rest of the country, we want to know that a vaccine is in the offing and that there is more effective treatment being developed for severe cases of Covid-19. We want to know what preventative rules and procedures we should be following.
For parents and educators alike, we also need reassurance that our schools will not be like those weird, sad images of young children in France having their solitary squares marked out in the playground.
The concerns are justified. Yet we cannot forget that keeping schools closed risks denying the young important opportunities for their development.
The issues with taking children out of school for prolonged periods are myriad and well-documented. With every day denied an education, the most disadvantaged pupils fall further behind. Advocacy groups such as the Children’s Society lament the loss of teachers being the “eyes and ears” to spot signs of abuse. Economists worry about the effects this loss of learning and the inevitable increase in school drop-outs will have on economies in the long-term, again hitting the most vulnerable groups hardest.
Only rarely in the last two months have we heard much about these concerns. Instead, we are greeted with daily doses of stories that seem calculated to induce maximum fear. The scandals in our care homes and the lack of PPE for health workers and carers have rightly been top of the news agenda, but it has fed into a media narrative that no one is safe going back to work, and that a similar crisis could play out in our schools if we allow them to reopen.
The fact is that children are, according to all the studies, at extremely low risk of Covid-19 and far less likely to transmit the virus than adults. This has done little to alleviate the state of panic. Now that the government has announced primary schools will begin to reopen from 1st June, the teaching unions are up in arms, urging their members to refuse to go back to work, perhaps indefinitely.
So, what is a teacher to do? In short, we should return to our classrooms. The longer we stay away, the more we are denying education to the next generation. That would be a loss for everyone.
Education is crucial to develop the intellectual and imaginative faculties of the next generation, and to socialise the young into a wider world of values and relationships than they are likely to encounter at home. Even if intellectual development can be achieved by some combination of home-schooling and virtual lessons (and for the vast majority of pupils, it can’t), socialising the young requires children to learn and develop within the physical school setting.
At school, children gradually move from the private family realm – where safety, comfort and protection are the guiding principles – to an interim world between family and a full-on adult public arena. Schools are where a child meets other children from different backgrounds, and in physical and metaphorical jostling, they come to know not only more about themselves, but how best to negotiate new relationships, with help on hand if needed.
Schools are also where children meet a class of adults – teachers – whose main concern is not to ensure their individual wellbeing in the way of a parent. This doesn’t make us Miss Trunchbull, it’s just a recognition that our main task – educating an entire generation and ensuring that all children find a way into unfamiliar worlds of ideas and knowledge – is different to parents whose focus is their own offspring.
Schools are where children come to extend their intellectual, imaginative and ethical minds. These things would be very difficult, if not impossible, to replicate through the home-schooling or digital classrooms that have worryingly been suggested as a long-term strategy to keep schools closed until the pandemic is “over”, which could be years. Online education has been helpful for some teachers in the early stages of lockdown, and could be of longer-term use in specific cases. But it can never be a generalised model for education.
We know that science does not provide epistemological certainty to order. If we lived our lives only according to what we knew for certain, terrified of even the slightest risk, we would never leave our homes.
So, I would urge teachers, and their representatives, to remember the true meaning and importance of our work, and accept that schools need to reopen. Those who are in a high-risk category or who live with someone vulnerable should of course have the option to remain at home, but the rest of us can work out sensible precautions for specific contexts ourselves – we don’t need a government-issued rulebook.
Coronavirus is not the plague, and the choice we face is not between risking death by reopening and saving lives by staying closed: it is about whether or not to allow fear to dominate our lives. We can teach by example that some things are worth taking a risk for – and education is one of them.
Dr Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is an educator, independent academic, and co-editor and contributing author of What Should Schools Teach? Disciplines, subjects and the Pursuit of Truth (2nd edition due in December).