Weighing Scales and Biting Bullets

The trouble with schools is that they’re unbelievably difficult to reopen.

I’m sorry, I feel I’m just adding to the writing frenzy out there at the moment by writing this, but I’m trying to clarify things in my head. If it helps with your thinking, great.  As always, comments welcome.

Lots of rumours come out with regards to the reopening of schools and then they’re quashed. I was convinced we’d all be going back on a phased return from June 1st, but (certainly in Wales) that’s not happening. I can understand why, and I feel for those having to make the final decisions with regards to schools going back. Conflicting statistics seem to come out daily and whatever exploratory route towards reopening we take, at some point we hit a brick wall. It’s a no-win situation politically.  

In times of crisis, James T. Kirk of the Star Ship Enterprise is the one to help . . . I’m reminded of an episode of Star Trek where Captain Kirk and a couple of his crew accidentally go back in time to Depression-era New York. Kirk, as he was often prone to do, falls in love with a woman (Joan Collins actually), who they find out is going to have a baby in the future, who grows up to be a dictator even more deadly than Hitler. He ends up killing millions and inflicting untold misery on countless others. Oh, and for good measure, he also starts the Third World War.

One day she sees Kirk from across the road and runs to greet him. Kirk sees her and also spots the six-million-ton truck hurtling towards her. Automatically he runs to save her, but Dr McCoy (regardless of any hippocratic oath he took) rugby tackles him to the ground before he reaches her and she is killed. By tackling Kirk to the ground, Dr McCoy saves billions in the future from dying before their time. The question is – was he right to let poor Joan Collins die?  

This is a classic argument between the Utilitarian – do we aim for the greatest good for the greatest number, and the liberal argument, focussing on the needs and rights of the individual. The argument in relation to schools and the COVID situation is: At what speed do we open everything and start-up the economy again before it’s damaged irreparably (certainly in our children’s lifetime)? Should we accept that there may be a rise in cases, possibly an increase in deaths and also accept that some people will have to isolate until a vaccine is found? Or do we continue with our current restrictions which certainly protects the individual, but at the risk of our economy collapsing and the increased personal damage it is doing to so many families?   

Is there a middle ground? Can we be utilitarian in this instance, but try to minimise the risk to vulnerable individuals? In the case of schools, for me, the issue isn’t the economy (one interesting statistic that the TUC have put out is that if this carries as it is until October, the cost to the Government pales in comparison to the amount the Government had to pay to bail out the banks following the 2008 crash), the main issue for me is the lasting damage this is doing to many young people and families as a whole.

When I’m trying to work out what we should do, I have an image of a huge weighing scale in my head. On one side I have my worries and concerns regarding the consequences of not going back and on the other the possible consequences of going back.  

Note of caution: Don’t expect me to provide any concrete statistics. I’ve been looking at them for weeks now and the air is far too noisy with them. Whatever statistic I find, or study I look at, there seems to be a conflicting one waiting in the wings. And so, apologies in advance if you think I am making too many generalisations.

My worries and concerns:

  • Educationally the gap between those living in deprived households and those living in more affluent areas is increasing at a dramatic rate. I see it daily when I look at our online learning participation rates (and that’s before I take into account the digital deprivation).  
  • There is a very definite rise in domestic abuse and violence against women and children (I can’t find any statistic that denies this).
  • Are our immune systems becoming compromised? Most teachers and young people in schools and colleges are on the whole very resilient when it comes to resisting nasty viruses. Yes, we all get colds from time to time, but we don’t pick up all the variants that will exist in a school because our immune systems are strong due to the amount of mixing, we do. The longer we leave this, the less accustomed our bodies will be to fighting all the bugs and germs flying around. I worry about an increase in flu and colds from October onwards
  • I also worry about our collective panic when each cold or flu case triggers a COVID alert.
  • I was out walking with my wife the other day and a parent barked at her toddler, who was happily trotting towards us, “Don’t go near the people”. We felt like alien monsters. How are infants perceiving others now? How will this affect their perception of others and relationships in later life?
  • I worry that this is too comfortable for many of us. I’m working hard at the moment and doing as many hours as I would in school, most of my staff are the same. However, the work is different. It is more comfortable. As a head or as teachers, we don’t have the same minute by minute situations to deal with as we do when there are over 1000 young people and 120 staff in the building. I’m on top of the workload now and things aren’t piling up (well they are actually, but I’m not in a panic). I even have some lunch these days and putting on weight as a result.

In short, although I’m desperate for schools to go back for all of the reasons above, at the same time, I challenge anyone one of you reading this to say in your heart that this form of working is not quite pleasant. Yes, I have kids in the house to contend with and at times I feel trapped, but I’m in my house and it feels kind of secure and comfortable. Is that my age? The longer we are out of school the harder it may be for some to come back. Not only is the COVID fear going to be there, preventing some from coming in, but will there be some in the profession who will take stock of their lives and think – is it time for a change?   

The one time of year I feel stressed is the summer holidays. During the break, I reassemble my life and get some order back into it. As the break continues, I begin to dread losing all the bits of myself I lose so quickly during term time, as I’m battered from pillar to post. 

(Don’t get me wrong I love my job and my wife tells me I’d be lost without it, but there is another life I know that exists). It will be hard for school staff to return and the longer this goes on, the more support they will need in making the transition back into school-based work.

  • Finally, I do worry about the economy not just at a global level (which is already affecting one of my children and will undoubtedly affect the other two in time), but at a local Council level also. I dread to think about how councils are going to survive financially if this continues. They seem to be constantly battling against reduced funding. We were just coming out of one period of austerity measures, what will this crisis bring us at a time when social and children’s services will need greater levels of funding?  

On the other side of the weighing scale

  • The individuals who have died and are still dying. These are now reducing, but people are still dying of COVID19 related reasons
  • The possibility that any rush back into schools may precipitate a ‘second wave’.

Weighing up the balance

It’s obvious there aren’t many bullet points on one side of my scales, however, we’re talking about individuals here. Any doctor I’ve spoken to, or article I’ve read, all seem to agree that COVID 19 is a particularly nasty virus in its current mutation. (Just as an aside, one interesting thing I’ve often heard mentioned is that as the viruses mutate, they normally mutate into lesser virulent viruses to be able to live off their hosts more easily. The common cold is an example). I then look at the numbers (and again I won’t quote figures), in comparison to other viruses and illnesses that cause death in Britain such as flu or sepsis, I also look at the figures of those who died of COVID 19, but were likely to have died immanently of their underlying ailment. The numbers are still big, but many of these are preventable with better screening and isolation.   

Taking this into account and the fact that the vast majority affected, do not require hospitalisation (and it would seem especially children), I’m led towards jumping off the fence and favouring an approach which will alleviate the worries and concerns I bulleted earlier. I ask myself, will the virus ever go away? There is so much talk about us beating the virus, but we have only ever beaten one – Smallpox. The others we have learned to either accept and live with, or manage through isolation, vaccines and other preventative measures.  

At the moment, it is too virulent to live with normally, but it would seem that those who most need to be wary and cared for are those with underlying conditions and the elderly. 

(Even here it is not straightforward when you look at the statistics for the disproportionate amount of COVID related deaths for Black and Asian groups). While we are waiting for a vaccine (and this still seems to be sometime off), these groups will have to take extra precautions and be guided in terms of keeping themselves at low risk. Some would argue that this creates a two-tier society where a segment is isolated. This is a fair argument, but I go back to my concerns above and weigh them up against this. It’s vital therefore that we look for ways minimise the creation of two-tiers, but at the same time we have to re-open schools and all the other institutions and business that are currently closed.  

My head is spinning now!!

When it comes to schools, there’s a certain amount of bullet biting to be done and a couple of things we have to accept when we open:

  • We can attempt to fight the virus if we choose to, but to beat it (if that is possible), would likely mean isolating everyone all of the time for an interminable amount of time. Are we willing to close all supermarkets (who in my opinion have done a brilliant job), send the power company workers home, along with the sewage workers and close all Amazon depots? And let’s not forget refuse collectors, post office workers and God forbid, internet providers. Schools are another cog in our society that enables us to maintain and continue to develop the levels of wellbeing, health and prosperity we have, they need to be open.  Okay, I accept it is a bigger risk in terms of sheer numbers of people (pupils and staff), but this can be managed, just as we have managed the provision of utilities and services mentioned above.
  • There will be an element of risk initially while we discover more about the virus, but we can protect staff during this time.
  • We can also attempt to protect students, but they will mix. We can do everything we can in school to ensure they socially distance themselves. But at the end of their day, unless we demand they are picked up by families (which will be unreasonable) or we have 10-minute intervals between each child leaving (I don’t want to be in school until 10.00 pm every day), they are going to interact on the way home.  
  • Personally, I don’t want my school to look like a huge wasp. When the students return, I don’t want them to see masses of yellow and black warning posters and floor markings all over the place with staff barking orders whenever a child strays off the permitted route to class. They will have been traumatised enough by this. I’d rather we took our time to embed good habits in a calm supportive way.  
  • When I consider everything, I’ve read on the matter, I personally think the risk to young people is minimal and the risk of them spreading it to adults is also minimal. However, I’m certainly no scientist and there are too many unknowns in this area. Consequently, parents should be given the freedom to decide when they choose to send their children back, and schools need to be prepared to accommodate this through continued online learning.  
  • As I intimated earlier, we can’t expect all staff to eagerly run back in, they will have their own concerns and fears to contend with. We will need time to work with staff.

Finally

We are still in this period of the unknown and so the risks are higher. Like every other virus, we will come to understand it and we will become accustomed to it (read this article about fear: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/10/health/coronavirus-plague-pandemic-history.html. In the meantime, we need to take acceptable risks to avoid the potential damage to us all in the long run. Just before borders closed, our school had a trip to Euro Disney scheduled. I spoke with the parents about the risks and they all agreed that the experiences and the enjoyment their children would gain, far surpassed the risk of going. At that time, it was acceptable, perhaps at the moment it isn’t, but those are the sort of judgements we will have to continue making. Sometimes like now, those judgements are in our face and we react accordingly. For example, a terrorist attack will make people think twice before travelling, but little by little they become accustomed to those risks (which are always there) and make unconscious judgements daily, in order to get on with their lives and keep all the ‘cogs’ turning.  

So, let’s reopen our schools with an element of choice given to people. We can minimise risk through a blend of home and school education, gradually increasing the amount in school (perhaps we may get to a stage where we think 21st-century learning doesn’t need to have pupils in school all day every day, but that’s another story for another time). We’re not treating young people as guinea pigs as some of the press have cried, we’re taking acceptable risks in an environment which will mitigate against these risks.  

Just before publishing this I read this BBC article: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-52758024  Yet more statistics, but it’s worth reading.

Now, let me go back and read this over and see how many landmines I’ve tread on.  

3 thoughts on “Weighing Scales and Biting Bullets

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