The prospect of school-age children trapped at home for the next six months will fill most parents with dread. This is not a hypothetical worst-case scenario but a reality that many parents across the country are waking up to.
The COVID-19 pandemic is tearing through the population at an alarming rate. While the vast majority of people who contract the virus will feel little more than flu-like symptoms, the dangers to the elderly and people with serious underlying health conditions have been well publicised. The UK Government’s response to the pandemic has been at best confused and at worse an utter dereliction of the duty of a government to provide leadership in times of crisis. The decision to keep schools open until Friday 20 March has been driven largely by economic considerations and the need to keep key workers, particularly NHS staff, in essential services, and not at home looking after their children.
This stance has been at odds with our European neighbours, many of which have far fewer reported cases and a lower mortality rate. This is further compounded by the fact that people who display symptoms such as a persistent cough or a high temperature need to self-isolate for up to seven days, whereas those who live with or come into close contact with possible sufferers need to self-isolate for up to fourteen days to mitigate the risk of further transfer. This has left school workforces desolated with the impossible situation of trying to remain open with up to 40% of their workforce in self-isolation. There comes a tipping point at which schools simply cannot operate safely. It is not just a question of teachers in front of children in the classroom, but also site staff, cleaners, kitchen staff, and administration staff, who are all required in order to manage a school day.
The Government has called for schools to dutifully march on for key workers for the greater good of the country, which completely ignores the reality of the situation. Staff absence on a large scale is only the beginning of the problem. Basic equipment required to sanitise a building are simply not available – hand sanitisers, antibacterial hand washes, and even tissues are in scarce supply with the NHS rightly being given priority by manufacturers. While the Chancellor has proudly announced a business support package of £330 billion, he has failed to grasp the reality on the ground: many schools do not have the most basic items for hygiene and sanitisation, never mind combatting an aggressive global pandemic. In general, there has been a complete lack of leadership and guidance from the Department of Education, and headteachers across the country are drafting guidance on a day-by-day basis, making decisions that potentially put the lives of their staff, students, and families at risk.
Rather than have a well thought-out and deliberate strategy managed and communicated by the Department of Education, schools have been left to disintegrate in the face of a national crisis without any foresight or planning. Parents are voting with their feet and keeping their children at home while a skeleton staff body are trying to manage under unprecedented circumstances.
Compare this floundering response to the decisiveness shown in France and Germany. The issue is not whether a person agrees with their measures or not. The issue here is the need for a coherent and consistent response that is spearheaded by the central government.
So, in the coming weeks and months, what support is available for parents, and what is the likely outcome for public examinations?
How will school provision work for key workers ?
Nobody knows. A government with strategic leadership and a rigorous plan would have already been in consultation with school leaders to ensure they were fully prepared for Wednesday’s announcement. Instead Headteachers are finding out at the same time as parents with no prior planning to implement the government’s new strategy. How are key workers identified? Which children are allowed into schools? Are the children of other parents prevented from entering the school site? How can the school building be properly sanitised and deep cleaned when basic cleaning products are not available? The Prime Minister said nothing to answer these questions and it should be no surprise if schools and communities are left to their own devices to cobble together makeshift solutions which are not equitable and not consistent with public health advice.
Closing a school site does not mean that learning stops. It is the responsibility of every school to provide structured and appropriate work for students to complete at home. Many schools have adopted virtual learning environments that allow students to remotely log in and access resources. This has to be carefully monitored by teachers. There should be facilities for online testing and some form of mechanism by which students can ask questions and receive feedback from teachers. Simply giving a list of websites is not appropriate. Teachers are still getting paid while the school is closed so it is their responsibility to manage learning remotely with engaging resources, remote testing and facilities for feedback to be given.
What if I don’t have a device or wi-fi connection in my home?
A school cannot assume that every family has a device (such as a desktop, laptop, or tablet) and a wi-fi connection. If for whatever reason a family does not have a wi-fi connection, the school should provide paper copies of the resources for the work being covered. If a family has a wi-fi connection but no device to access work, the school should lend out a device such as a laptop for the duration of the school’s closure. Parents may have to sign an acceptable user agreement which stipulates the need to pay for any damage caused to the device.
What will happen with the public examinations for SATs, GCSEs, and A Levels?
Nobody really knows. The Department of Education has held talks with the Joint Council for Qualifications and teaching unions to come up with solutions. Various scenarios have been discussed, each of which would have serious disadvantages. For example, a closure of schools until the examinations with students returning only to sit the examinations takes no account of the fact that thousands of young people and staff could be self-isolating at this time. The pressure of public examinations could force students and staff with COVID-19 symptoms to come out of isolation and create a mass wave of secondary transmission, with over 30 sittings for a typical GCSE student. Another suggested solution is to postpone the examinations until later on in the summer holidays. This solution is based on the assumption that the pandemic would have subsided by then, which by no means is guaranteed. It also ignores the very real logistical challenge of ensuring hundreds of thousands of students are available for examination in late summer where plans for travel may already have been booked. Hamid Patel, Chief Executive of the highly successful Star Academies chain that runs some of the most successful state schools in the country, has said that the Government should ‘do the unthinkable’ and postpone this summer’s exams along with SATs tests to be taken by England’s primary school pupils in order to save lives during the peak infection period.
A possible outcome could be that date stamped predicted grades data from schools is used to award GCSE and A-Level grades without sitting examinations. The capacity simply does not exist in the schooling system to repeat academic years for all students.
What if my child qualifies for free school meals?
It is a sad reality in modern day Britain that many children are living in poverty and a school lunch might be the main meal of the day for them. If a family are experiencing serious financial difficulty and cannot afford to provide lunch for their children in term time, they should contact the school about providing a cold lunch (sandwich, fruit, and drink) daily that can be collected from the school site. Schools still receive funding for free school meals even if the school site is closed for lessons. With a skeleton staff, schools can still prepare lunches that are collected from the school site daily. Alternatively, schools can pay for supermarket vouchers or gift cards that can be used by parents to purchase school lunches.
A time for leadership
There comes a time when a leader cannot rely on charisma, humour, and wit alone. In times of crisis, the nation looks to its leaders to show vision, determination, and clarity of direction. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) was the Commander in Chief for the fledgling state of Medina for ten years. In this short tenure, the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) faced existential threats from the beginning of his migration to the very last days of his life. He faced armies, impossible odds, famine, natural disasters, family crises, and assassination attempts. At all times, he led from the front. At all times, he inspired hope and optimism amongst his followers. And at all times, he faced incredible challenges with skill, courage, and wisdom.