“It’s dangerous to send them into school. Why should I take the place of someone who works in A&E? We’re not key workers.”
Mary* is a lecturer for the University of the West of England (UWE) and has been working from home this latest lockdown, teaching online courses. Universities have been under fire for going ahead with courses this year, encouraging students to attend and take residence in halls, before moving courses online due to infection rates. Because of this, although many lecturers can work from home, there is huge pressure on them to deliver the service, which staff say is behind the push for them to send their children into school.
Children are only supposed to go to school if their parents are critical workers who can’t look after them while working from home, but the number of children in schools has shot up this lockdown, with a survey by the Teacher Tapp app finding that one in three primary schools in England currently has over 20% of its pupils in school, much more than last March.
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UWE Vice Chancellor Steve West sent a letter to staff saying that the Department of Education (DfE) had confirmed that higher education staff were classed as critical workers, and that even if they are working from home, they are entitled to apply for a key worker space at their child’s school.
Mary and her partner both work from home and they have school-age children, so they’re familiar with the challenges working from home while also managing childcare. But she questions the need for lecturers to be working at all.
A UWE spokesperson said that the DfE had told universities that higher education staff are considered critical workers and that they had been reminded that they should “support the government’s position to do everything to keep their children at home if they can”.
“The university recognises that many staff have children at home during lockdown and have reminded colleagues to be mindful of this. We have also encouraged staff to take advantage of our numerous family-friendly and flexible working options and to speak to their line managers if they need to make further arrangements. We understand that this is a difficult time for working parents and are doing all we can to support our staff and limit the spread of Covid-19 while following government guidance.”
More children at school creates unnecessary risk
More children in school during lockdown means that more teachers have to come in to teach physically onsite, overstretching schools and education workers, and also putting onsite staff at risk of getting – and transmitting – coronavirus. Figures obtained by the NASUWT teachers union show that the rate of education workers contracting Covid-19 is up to 333% above the average and teacher survey app, TeacherTapp, recorded that around 30% of teachers reported work-related anxiety in January.
Sally* is a primary school teacher who has noticed a drastic increase in the number of children in school this lockdown. “There are loads more children in than there were in the previous lockdown. In Lockdown 1 we had so few children that in Reception, Year One, Year Two and Year Three, there were seven kids, and about the same in Four, Five and Six. Now we have at least eighteen from every year group.”
At Sally’s school, two teachers work in partnership with each class, taking turns to teach online courses from home, or teach the children who go into the school. While Sally believes that her own school has handled the increased numbers pretty well, she recognises the problems and dangers it could pose. “I have heard of schools that are asking their teachers to do both in-person teaching and online learning. I just got better from having Covid, so my partner-teacher had to do that for two days, and she doesn’t have any idea how anyone can manage doing both.”
William Brown, Assistant Secretary for Bristol National Education Union and a primary school teacher, believes that there are a variety of pressures which have led to the increase in school attendance locally, not just direct pressure from employers. “I have a huge amount of sympathy for parents looking for stability where there is a lack of stability”, he said, emphasising that it was the government’s confused strategy and messaging which had left many parents uncertain.
He says there’s been a “measurable and noticeable” increase in attendance compared to the last lockdown. “The government has its share of the blame for this. Our union has approached them repeatedly saying ‘let’s talk, let’s make plans’, ahead of all these U-turns and totally foreseeable events, asking for a Plan B, a Plan C… and the government has disregarded us, only to back down under pressure.”
Teachers at a local prison, many of whom have children, are being forced to attend work in person, despite classes having been cancelled before Christmas. Most education in the prison has been delivered through remote work packs, initially put together by teachers working from home, but from January, teachers are being forced to go into work to assemble these and conduct other administrative tasks.
“We received an email telling us that we are critical workers, so that staff would be able to send their kids to school”, Harbans*, a teacher at the prison said. The email stated that their work was “critical to the coronavirus response,” but she disagrees.
“We can do the work by being onsite one day a week, if that. It is essentially admin and marking. They have said that we are essential to the regime and that we are critical workers, but it feels like we are anything but.”
Sebastian Cooke, Bristol spokesperson of the Zero Covid campaign, a pressure group campaigning for a “Zero Covid” strategy, called for the temporary closure of unsafe and non-essential workplaces, with financial support for those affected, until transmission has reduced to almost zero.
“If properly implemented, then these closures will be shorter than the current lockdown and provide lasting safety afterwards,” he said.
‘Although the risk is still high, it’s less ambiguous’
The vague wording of the government’s classification of “critical worker” makes it easy for employers to say their staff are key workers. The government guidance lists “education and childcare” workers as critical, and therefore able to send children into school if they cannot stay at home. These include childcare workers, support and teaching staff, social workers and “specialist education professionals who must remain active during the coronavirus (COVID-19) response to deliver this approach”. It is not said which education workers fit into these categories.
But some parents are choosing to send their children to school. Beth* and Roy*, both child protection social workers, kept their son home during the first lockdown, but felt that this time they would not both be able to work from home and look after him at the same time.
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“There are ten people with children in my team, and only one of them kept their child in school the first time round. This time, everyone has sent their children in,” Beth said. “We felt that keeping our son home was not appropriate with the nature of our jobs.”
As child protection social workers, Beth and Roy often have to discuss difficult cases on work calls and were uncomfortable with their son overhearing them. They also emphasised the difficulty of looking after children while working. “Once I was in a work discussion about whether a child was at risk of significant harm,” Beth said “and I looked out the window and my son was on top of the climbing frame on the slide, sat on a sledge holding an umbrella. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know whether this child I’m talking about is at risk of harm, but my son certainly is!’”
“Last year, there was much more uncertainty as to what the risk posed by the virus was”, Roy told me. “Now, although the risk is still high, it’s less ambiguous. There is much more clarity as to what the risk actually is. You know what you’re dealing with”.
*Names have been changed