Almost two months ago, the prime minister Boris Johnson plunged the United Kingdom into a a third national lockdown. However, unlike the last, there was a slight difference: schools would close and students and teachers alike would return to online learning. The question has now been raised: when should schools go back? At the end of Janaury, it was announced that March 8th would be the earliest return date but it “depend[ed] on lots of things going right.” Now, it is clear. Schools will return on March 8th.
Hearing this news, I frankly wasn’t surprised. It has been clear from the outset that one of prime minister’s highest priorities has been getting students back into school. However, I’m unsure. This quick, mass return isn’t an enormously welcome prospect.
It is clear that remote learning has a determinable effect on children: from negative mental health to educational impact. Online schooling is not without its challenges.
However, the return to schools will iron out technological inequalities. I have been in a very privileged position to have had a stable internet connection and multiple devices in which to access my online lessons from. For others, they haven’t been so fortunate.
Earlier in the lockdown, the prime minister recognised the challenges of online education. He pledged to “work with parents, teachers and schools to develop a long-term plan to make sure that pupils have the chance to make up their learning” before 2024.
He went on to say that £300m “of new money to schools” would fund a catch-up programme over the coming year, with financial incentives for providers to educate pupils who have missed lessons due to the pandemic.
He has now gone that one step further to launch students back into the classroom. The question is: it is too soon?
My school has just over 1000 pupils, with around 200 in each year. School buildings are not designed for social distancing. To think this is possible is a gross misjudgement.
Mask wearing was optional except in corridors. The guidance was that it wasn’t necessary in non-communal spaces, so no one did. The messaging was continually mixed, with teachers stressing social distancing where possible, with others uncertain on their approach. In no way I am blaming teachers, instead I am blaming the vague and impractical advice from the government.
Although young people are at a lower risk of catching the virus, the risk is not 0%. When students catch COVID, they are forced to self-isolate, potentially missing any form of teacher-aided learning. This problem widens the issue of educational inequalities, as some may have had to self-isolate more than once.
As we have seen before, cases will rise. It will happen. I don’t want the future of measures to be resting on students’ and teachers’ shoulders.
I for one, like many other students, have struggled with online learning. It’s hard to cope without the classroom banter or the ability to simply just ask for support. Would I like to see my friends in person? Without a shadow of a doubt, yes. But, more importantly, the threat of the virus is still ever-present. Is socialising a reason for returning? That is up for debate.
I believe it is important for the Department for Education to learn from their mistakes and recognise the failures in the last return of pupils to schools. It is vital that schools are given clear, scientifically proven guidance in keeping all those in work in educational settings safe.
New guidance on masks has been issued. A plan for mass testing is in place. But, the question still remains whether schools are safe environments. In my opinion, the next step would be to vaccinate teachers as a priority. They are key workers after all.
Perhaps the government could learn from countries like Denmark, who used cultural venues such as theatres to house students in order to maintain social distancing whilst they are closed.
It will be interesting to see whether the return of schools will cause another lockdown in the future, or simply the current government will prove its incompetence with another U-turn.