In the middle of the Dominic Cummings fiasco, the government seems keen to keep a low profile while it pushes through another disaster - the wider reopening of schools on June 1st across England. Teachers have found themselves pulled in multiple directions at once. Staff are attempting to keep track of changes to qualifications, provide teaching to children of frontline workers, design and deliver digital teaching to other students, as well as continuing to fill service gaps created by decades of austerity and poor funding. So the government encouraging the return of a significant number of students to schools seems short-sighted. With the R still dangerously close to 1, no competent test and tracing system, and a shortage of PPE for teachers, the risks cannot be overstated.
Five Tests for Safe Schools
The response by the National Education Union (NEU) and other groups has been to stand by teachers against this policy. The NEU have laid out five key tests before they would support a wider reopening of schools, which it's important to share in full:
Test 1 : Much lower numbers of Covid-19 cases
The new case count must be much lower than it is now, with a sustained downward trend and confidence that new cases are known and counted promptly. And the Government must have extensive arrangements for testing and contact tracing to keep it that way.
Test 2 : A national plan for social distancing
The Government must have a national plan including parameters for both appropriate physical distancing and levels of social mixing in schools, as well as for appropriate PPE, which will be locally negotiated at school-by-school and local authority level.
Test 3 : Testing, testing, testing!
Comprehensive access to regular testing for children and staff to ensure our schools and colleges don’t become hot spots for Covid-19.
Test 4 : Whole school strategy
Protocols to be put in place to test a whole school or college when a case occurs and for isolation to be strictly followed.
Test 5 : Protection for the vulnerable
Vulnerable staff, and staff who live with vulnerable people, must work from home, fulfilling their professional duties to the extent that is possible. Plans must specifically address the protection of vulnerable parents, grandparents and carers.
You don’t need to be an expert in current affairs to see that the government has failed to pass these tests. With UK deaths still in the hundreds and an already shambolic test and trace system, this is not safe. Despite these requirements being clearly reasonable in light of the dangers of COVID-19, the government still plans to risk it. This cannot stand, and environmentalists should be clear in our support for teachers against wider reopening.
Why Teaching is a Climate Job
For years now environmental movements have been calling for the creation of climate jobs. Many will imagine these jobs to be solar panel technicians, wind farm engineers, and the like. They are, of course, right. But this is to limit what low-carbon work may look like. It’s important to understand the creation of climate jobs is wider than the usual energy industries. It means a wage for the unpaid labour currently going into conservation and environmental work globally. It also means a proliferation of careers necessary for society, with relatively low carbon impacts. This means nurses or doctors, but crucially at the moment, it also includes teaching.
Teaching should be seen as foundational to a sustainable system. Through education it is possible to understand the complexity of the environment, and the problems to be surmounted. Teachers, at their best, provide support to students attempting to engage with the climate crisis, both emotionally and as environmentalists. What is the environmental cost of this work? Little to none, if done right. Sure, teachers may photocopy or take students on field trips, but this is nothing compared to the ecological damage done in many careers. And in return, we create a system where individuals are equipped with the skills necessary to flourish, to tackle problems like climate change, and to find themselves in the world.
Standing up for teaching
Teachers, parents and students are being forced into a horrible situation by the government. A botched return to school, which doesn’t satisfy reasonable tests like those of the NEU, could bring about further COVID-19 cases across the country. As environmentalists we should be uncompromising in our support for teachers at this moment. Teachers are right. When climate movements talk of support for climate workers, they should walk the walk at moments like this.
To live in a low carbon system is to live in a system of educators and carers. It is a system focused on the satisfaction of needs, rather than the proliferation of wants. To get to this, we need to support teachers in their struggle defending themselves and their students. A shift can come about, a radical change in how our education system, and the wider world operates. It requires a movement of teachers, students, and environmentalists working together.
As some immediate steps, we'd encourage readers to sign the NEU petition and look at the NEU COVID-19 resources, as well as reaching out to any teachers you know to ask how you can support them in your area. With many English councils opposing a wider reopening, there is still space to contact MPs and council representatives to speak out against the policy.