With the return of full classrooms this Spring comes excitement and trepidation in equal measure. I haven’t come across a single teacher who does not want to be back in front of their classes. It will be a great relief for many and with Spring in reach and the Summer term not far behind there is a definite scent of hope in the air. There are, however, many who have concerns about getting back into fully open schools with so little by way of mitigations when it comes to the risks of catching an airborne virus (that has proved deadly to so many) in a busy classroom.
Secondary teacher and education spokesperson for the Green Party of England and Wales, Vix Lowthian, would like to see a far greater understanding of how Covid-19 is actually transmitted. She explained, “It is increasingly clear that covid19 is airborne - hence the wearing of masks in shops, increased ventilation and social distancing, and reduced numbers in cafes and commercial venues. However, when it comes to schools the government have refused to significantly change or update guidance to be based on the science, leaving school leaders in a very difficult position.”
This has proved to be challenging for school leaders and parents alike. The new measures that are designed to make schools safer places for all in their communities to be – measures such as masks in classrooms for older children, and lateral flow tests twice a week - are only recommended, and not mandatory. As Lowthian said, “Extra ventilation in classrooms and vaccines for school staff are not recommended, neither are rotas for pupils.”
One of the points made by teaching staff who will be making the return to schools possible is that it seems that little has been done by way of further protection. “Covid is airborne,” Lowthian explained. “So instructing school leaders not to send home classes or 'bubbles' of students but only those 1-2metres from a positive case is completely inadequate.”
We know what the science is increasingly telling us and we can aim to use this as much as possible to inform our way of being in schools with full attendance at this time, but any concerns that teachers have do need to be heard and acted upon. Talking to teachers and other school staff, and seeing what is shared on social media, demonstrates a significant degree of anxiety. One teacher told me, “It is obvious from the science that all classrooms will need maximum ventilation and masks all round. My main concern is that the modelled scenarios from SAGE all present a large increase in deaths, and R at or over 1. We need to take this on board.”
Head of Parklands Primary in Leeds, Chris Dyson, feels that sharing the risk assessment with staff is vital to help to ease anxieties. Over the last two weeks we have sent Staff Wellbeing questionnaires and arranged one to one time with our Wellbeing Leader for those staff who need it. Not all staff are anxious, but it is important to assist the ones who do need the support. We have also decided not to have any meetings until after Easter so that staff can get home and unwind.”
Getting back safely – 5 ways
1. Covid-19 is airborne
According to an article in The Lancet COVID-19 transmission—up in the air - The Lancet Respiratory Medicine, first published in October 2020, there is growing evidence that Covid-19 is airborne. If we remember one thing about this virus and how to prevent transmission, let it be this! Keep all indoor spaces as ventilated as possible at all times.
We know that the risk of transmission is much lower outside where ventilation is far better than inside. This means taking as many opportunities as possible to take lessons into the fresh air, or at the very least, keep those windows open all the time so that all indoor settings are fully ventilated at all times. If what you are teaching can possibly be done outside, do it.
3. Mask up
Masks and shields offer some protection from airborne transmission, but remember, never use a shield/visor without also wearing a mask. This is one way of protecting ourselves and others when in an enclosed space. If masks are not worn, distancing is even more important.
4. Keep up to date
This is a new situation with a novel virus and science is shaping and refining our understanding all the time. There are experts such as the scientists on SAGE and Independent SAGE (many of whom use social media to convey important messages) who have contributed greatly to the public’s understanding of covid-19.
5. Wellbeing first
While some have no concerns about getting back to packed classrooms, others are carrying a significant amount anxiety about the risks they are facing for themselves and their families. As Dyson suggested, some staff will need more support than others. Building expertise inhouse is always a good plan, and using specialist support when indicated – perhaps where excessive stress or trauma is indicated – will help to ensure staff feel confident to be working closely with others.
Remember: Hands, face, space, ventilate – outdoors better than indoors!
Find out more:
Recent guidance on ventilation and making indoor spaces safer can be found here:
- Ventilation and air conditioning during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic (hse.gov.uk)
- Ventilation of indoor spaces to stop the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)
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.