Scrolling through my Facebook feed I came across this news story on the death of a ticket office worker at Victoria Station, posted by a friend with this comment attached: “This is the reality. I wouldn’t be a teacher at this point for any money at all. It’s not just the fear for myself. The children would cough or pretend to cough or may pretend or threaten to spit at each other, and distance is impossible with all but the most privileged classrooms.”
While the coronavirus has swept through the nation as many predicted it would, schools up and down the country have remained open for some children. Teaching (and other) staff have been on the front line, keeping education going in the wake of the Prime Minister’s warning that “Many families, many more families, are going to lose loved ones before their time.”
Keeping schools open as the nation locked down has evidently taken an emotional and physical toll on headteachers and others. And as we just tip the peak of infections, plans to open schools more fully have been announced causing widespread anxiety across the profession. Listening to the radio, though, I hear an ex-tabloid journalist suggest that teachers just don’t want to go back to work, and I hear callers say teachers are reluctant to work. This could not be further from the truth. Sad that it needs stating again, but teachers have not stopped working throughout this pandemic, often in extremely challenging circumstances.
One head posted her 4am ponderings on twitter regarding the pressures that heads are under: “I think HTs might be more vulnerable due to the stress when we return. We need to rest and look after ourselves but I’m not sure when!”
I have seen other discussions on how heads may well be more vulnerable when schools open more fully due to the immense stress they have carried in the months leading up to this point. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that stress weakens the immune system.
I also see teachers on social media asking intelligent and valid questions about PPE, distancing and curriculum goals. Making comparisons with countries affected far less than England, and employing far more stringent protections for children and staff is obviously not appropriate.
One recently retired teacher who blogs under the name of "Disappointed Idealist" has written of his concerns around the pressures on headteachers and other school staff. Now that schools have been asked to plan for reopening as early as June 1st he feels that we must ensure that nothing we do results in feeling culpable for the death of a teacher (or other member of staff) or pupil as a result of schools re-opening more widely. He said, “The "only following orders" defence isn't a defence. If a Head or Governor knows that complying with safe social distancing guidelines is impossible in their school, then they know that teachers are being asked to take risks above and beyond those expected of others. If they still go ahead with asking those teachers to come in and put themselves at such risk, then they will be culpable, morally if not legally.”
Academy Trust CEO Dr Heary also has concerns. “We've been navigating with a blindfold on. The landscape and expectations are continually changing and misunderstood. We have kept our parents with us by explaining our thinking, running parents' forums, and keeping a steady stream of communication, but the latest changes threaten to throw that off balance. The first few days after closure were among the busiest I have ever spent, despite not leaving the house - on the computer from 6am until I went to bed about 11. At the same time, my wife (also a teacher) was very ill with COVID-19 symptoms, and my SEN daughter had obviously been sent home. It was impossible to keep up with the pace of change. Over Easter, it settled down, but the level of uncertainty is profoundly difficult to plan for. Every document goes through multiple rewrites and is out of date by the time it's printed.”
There is an obvious need to pay extremely close attention now to the health and wellbeing of our headteachers and other school staff. Many are speaking of experiencing the adverse effects of an unusually intense period of stress. Fortunately, support is forthcoming.
Commenting on the government’s proposals for schools to begin reopening more fully from 1 June, Sinéad Mc Brearty, CEO of Education Support to me: “As keyworkers, teachers and other education staff have responded remarkably to this unprecedented crisis, showing enormous determination, adaptability, kindness and care. Many continue to work at physical school sites; the rest are working hard to teach and support our children remotely.”
I have no doubt that we all want this crisis to be over and we all want to get back into our usual classrooms to teach. The current death toll is breath-taking and the education profession has not emerged unscathed. It seems that many heads have had to deal with the death of a member of their wider community, if not staff, and if the easing of the lockdown has not been timed to perfection, many more heads may face this immense challenge too.
I remain deeply concerned about the emotional toll on headteachers in particular and feel that this needs our attention as a nation. As McBrearty explains, “Educators want to be back with their pupils and students, and they want this return to be safe, planned and properly supported. The data around transmission and the guidance around safety are contested and unclear. The scientific basis for the return to school policy has not yet been shared [at the time of writing]. This generates uncertainty and low trust, which in turn is creating significant anxiety, confusion and concern across the education sector.”
For further support:
Anyone working in education can call the Education Support Partnership free, confidential helpline, available 24/7 and speak to a trained counsellor on 08000 562561.
Education Support has produced a series of mental health resources for teachers, lecturers and support staff dealing with the Covid-19 crisis. View the resources here.
About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.