The disregard for teachers during Covid is the ultimate proof of a vilified and undervalued profession

Teachers have long known that their profession isn’t appreciated and Covid has made that even clearer

I’ve always known that teaching in the UK is an underappreciated profession. Successive governments have underfunded schools and colleges and right wing media has continued to lambaste and brand teachers as lazy. Furthermore, the hackneyed belief that teachers are always on holiday, and off home at 3:30 each day, continues to be ignorantly peddled even by some parents.

The pandemic presented an opportunity to change that. As key workers, teachers continued to work during the first national lockdown. Schools remained open for children of key workers and vulnerable children and teachers continued to provide remote learning for all other students. While the country was locked down, teachers remained on the front line.

It should have signalled the government showing its gratitude for a profession that for so long, it has shown disdain. It was a chance for attitudes from parents and the wider public to shift as homeschooling, and being with their children without any respite, prompted a newfound appreciation for the job teachers and support staff do. Alas, none of that was forthcoming. Instead, the pandemic has shown just how much disregard there is for the profession.

Where the hollow gesture of weekly clapping for the NHS gave the impression of appreciation, for teachers, the silence from a lack of recognition has been deafening.

Teachers and school support staff are forgotten when acknowledging professions where workers are most at risk during the pandemic. Consider the accepted approaches of social distancing and avoiding crowded spaces. Meanwhile, teachers spend the day in crowded classrooms with 30 children at a time. Social distancing in schools is an absolute myth and the notion of bubbles is burst when you consider that children will mix with others en route home and come from hundreds of different homes within each school.

When, on the government’s direction, schools invited select year groups to return before the Summer break, I asked students how they had coped during the lockdown and how their mental health had fared. One told me he and his family had been having parties. Another told me they’d been having sleepovers with friends. There were trips to crowded beaches too. Remarks like these were all too common from children across the country. Only this week a student told me he couldn’t wait for the weekend because he was having a sleepover — during a national lockdown.

Some children with symptoms are also sent to school by their parents without being tested. Either because their absence from school will also result in a parent’s absence from work while self isolating (which is an understandable anxiety given the varied understanding of employers or potential loss of income) or a lack of available testing.

So much for the Prime Minister’s suggestion that we trust the common sense of the British people. For schools to remain safe, it requires buy-in from parents in ensuring they and their families reduce the risk to schools with the caution they show in relation to Covid. Sadly, that can’t be guaranteed.

Of course, many parents do adhere to the advice that protects their families and their child’s school. Although being a parent and a covidiot isn’t mutually exclusive.

It’s as if the government acknowledged the optimum conditions for the transmission of Covid and advised the public on how to reduce the risk to themselves and those around them. Yet told teachers, “nah, not you, you’re going to have to hold this one”.

Schools cannot and should not be held responsible for cases of Covid in schools. The message was that schools were “Covid safe” and school site teams did a sterling job in working tirelessly in preparing schools to be as safe as possible. That’s while following what were arbitrary and unclear government guidelines. Rather, the responsibility and blame lies squarely with the government.

In contrast, other countries have commenced the new academic year with remote learning, or a mixture of remote and in-person learning in school, to mitigate the risk to students and staff. Why wasn’t that an approach taken by the UK and devolved governments here?

The UK government has always maintained that the best place for children is in school. And I agree. For their wellbeing and mental health, and their education, remaining in school is the best place for children. That’s even in light of Covid. For that reason, I’ve not called for a blanket closure of schools. However, to safely provide that, we need to manage the risks of Covid and that’s something the government has refused to do.

Routine testing is essential in schools yet this hasn’t occurred and it beggars belief that the government hasn’t made any moves to effect that. They’d rather suppress the reported number of Covid cases by not testing. You’d think they were indifferent to Covid spreading in schools; given their realisation that much of the public share their views on teachers, I’d say they were.

Similarly, self isolating for those with confirmed cases or a risk of carrying Covid is crucial. But presumably to suppress numbers of children being sent home, and to suggest it’s business as usual in schools, the government has produced unclear and inconsistent rules on what triggers a bubble being made to self isolate.

With the government’s disingenuous claim of the wellbeing of children being at the heart of its approach on education during the pandemic, what of the wellbeing of staff? What is in place for those who are suffering from the anxiety of potentially contracting Covid and spreading it to their families, especially those in vulnerable categories?

Ironically, the government’s approach has normalised life during the pandemic for school staff as broadly speaking, it hasn’t been any different. I had even forgotten that the second lockdown had started because it made absolutely no difference to my daily routine.

So where can the teaching profession turn to for support? Not the government and for many, not the public either. Surely the teaching unions would provide a last line of defence in ensuring teachers and support staff are kept safe. Disappointingly, this hasn’t been the case either.

I’m a committed supporter and longtime member of the trade union movement. Moreover, I am in solidarity with union representatives supporting individual members, branches and regions. But during the pandemic, teachers have been left without a voice or protection in the face of the government’s callous disregard for safety in schools.

Every teacher I know is underwhelmed with the response from the unions. It’s left members feeling hopeless against a government approach that is as reckless as it is unsafe.

As the government fails to consider any safety measures in school, the unions have been frustratingly timid in their response. It begs the question, if you can’t protect your members in a global pandemic, when can you?

Industrial action is always a last resort for unions; in the interest of supporting the national effort against Covid, it’s understandable why the unions would shy away from such an approach. Yet when your members feel they are at a significantly heightened risk everyday, you would be forgiven for at least balloting members on industrial action short of a strike. If anything, it might result in the government having a modicum of regard for safety in schools. Nevertheless, action of any form has not been forthcoming from the unions. Teachers truly are out on a limb in the pandemic.

The pandemic has shown us the best and worst in society. Sadly, when it comes to how valued teachers and school support staff are, it’s firmly been the latter.

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