Public health must be at forefront of schools return

Prolonged school closures are harmful to children’s wellbeing and their educational attainment. This is something we’re all agreed on, as the Education Secretary himself has said. The debate over how and on what grounds to reopen our schools in August has become understandably tense though, with sincere voices on all sides, as well as those with potentially less honourable undeclared intentions, as Martyn McLaughlin notes in his excellent Scotsman column.

I do not pretend to offer any comprehensive plan or roadmap – with so many complicated issues to tackle, no one person in any particular role could pretend to – but I’m offering these suggestions as my contribution to a discussion which needs to progress with urgency.

1. Public health should be the overriding priority in all decision-making
A prolonged period of ‘blended learning’ where children are still at home for half the week will create monumental childcare issues for parents returning to work. Some are already contemplating leaving their job as the only way to meet the childcare demands placed on them. But whilst mitigating against this, we cannot lose sight of the overriding objective, to save lives by containing and eradicating the virus. We will not forgive ourselves if we get this wrong.
Yes, there is a growing body of evidence that younger children in particular are not at significant risk from the virus but they are not invulnerable, and the science – though developing rapidly – is far from conclusive. But we must also remember that children are not the only people in schools. The health and safety of teachers and support staff is not some lesser concern, nor is that of children’s family members and the wider community. We are still learning about this virus and one thing we have not yet learnt nearly enough about is how  it can be spread by children who are not themselves particularly affected.
A second wave or even localised outbreaks would not only be a public health disaster, they would be an economic one too. Framing this as a choice between public health and ‘getting the economy going again’ is a false one.
2. Routine testing for teachers & school staff
This would give staff much greater confidence that they are protected. Critically, it would help ensure any infection in a school is identified and isolated before an outbreak can occur.
One of the great challenges posed by Covid is the ease with which people with mild symptoms or who are pre-symptomatic can spread the virus. Physical distancing, face coverings and hygiene help reduce this risk, but they don’t remove it. That’s why regular testing of frontline staff, whether it be in care homes, hospitals or schools, can be so important. In fact, a study by Imperial college found that routine testing can reduce the spread of the virus from these groups by up to a third.
I see no reason why regular testing for teachers could not be introduced as soon as schools & early years centres go back. This could then be reduced over time, focussing on schools in communities where new cases are still emerging. The Scottish Government already has the capacity to do this. Over the past week for example, an average of just 1/3rd of Scotland’s testing capacity was used each day. That’s 10,000 tests a day that could be carried out. Weekly testing of the 52,000 or so teachers working in Scotland could therefore easily be done within existing capacity, as could testing of support staff.
Scottish Government advisor Professor Devi Sridhar has advocated twice weekly testing for teachers and older pupils.

3. Face coverings in high school
Face coverings are mandatory on public transport and strongly recommended in shops, so it’s hard to see why they wouldn’t be effective in the sustained close contact of a school environment. In any case, while the evidence base for this measure is still being developed, the precautionary principle would dictate that we do it until such times as it is proven to be ineffective.
Face coverings would of course be too distressing in primary school, as well as being counter-productive if they prompted small children to touch their face even more. In high schools though they would not only further reduce the risk of transmission but would provide a constant visual reminder of the virus and the need to stick to wider protective measures such as social distancing.
As in all other environments where mask-wearing is mandated, there would clearly have to be exemptions. Measures such as this don’t require 100% compliance to be effective, so reasonable exemptions wouldn’t have any significant unhelpful impact.

4. Cancel exams now
High-stakes end of term exams have never been a fair and effective way of measuring young people’s knowledge or abilities. Holding them as normal at the end of a such a challenging year would be entirely unjust and unjustified, and it would risk further turbo-charging the widening of the attainment gap. Replacing exams with systems of continuous assessment throughout the year would be far fairer in any normal year but in the face of potentially prolonged disruption and the risk of a second wave of the virus, one which could force their cancellation should it occur next spring, it is the only reasonable option.
The Scottish Government need to make this decision now, so that teachers can prepare and pupils are clear what is expected of them when they return. The uncertainty of intending to hold exams but acknowledging that they may be cancelled is not something we want hanging over tens of thousands of young people all year.

5. Additional facilities
If we’re to have as many pupils back at school for as many days as possible, but maintain social distancing, we need a schools estate many times larger than what we have at present. That will mean innovative use of community centres, libraries, town and church halls and other available spaces. Not every big empty room can become a classroom though. Schools need to be safe and secure to a far higher standard than town halls for example. Upgrading other council facilities and renting out private premises such as church halls requires money our local authorities don’t have. The Scottish Government hold the purse strings. They  need to stump up the cash to make this expansion possible now. Cutting other council services to pay for it is not a solution.
We all need to remember, however, that even with the cash this is far from straightforward. Secondary schools in particular can’t just move into more buildings and offer the same as they normally would. Science and technology classes, for example, require equipment that can’t just be dragged over to the church hall. Far more thought needs given to expanding capacity where the resource & infrastructure required creates an added complication.

6. Outdoor learning
The immense benefits of outdoor learning have been widely recognised for a long time. The challenge in recent years has been having the equipment, as well as staff training and confidence, to roll it out. On top of its educational and health benefits though, it now has the attractions of easing the demand for more indoor classroom capacity, being a setting where achieving social distancing is much easier & dramatically reducing the chances of viral transmission compared to any indoor environment.
Our health spokesperson Alison Johnstone recently gave a quick & powerful explanation of its benefits, particularly in areas of high child poverty, on BBC Scotland’s Debate Night.
One additional benefit of a substantive proportion of outdoor learning from August will be the easier transition it will make for some children with additional support needs, who would normally find the classroom routine of sitting still for long periods of time really challenging.

7. Additional staff
More facilities is only a first step. Those extra rooms and outdoor learning environments will need teachers, additional support needs specialists, classroom assistants, maintenance staff, cleaners, catering teams and more.
The simple reality is that there just aren’t enough teachers, including probationers, NQTs and retired staff who can be enticed back to meet  demand, particularly if the (unrealistic) expectation is that every pupil is back full time while social distancing is still in place. So, what then?
Thousands of youth workers are currently furloughed or unemployed, many with little prospect of a return to work for some time. Whilst I am absolutely not claiming youth workers and teachers to be interchangeable, bringing these qualified and safeguarding trained staff in to assist and supervise would make a huge difference. Parliament’s Education Committee has long advocated more youth work involvement in schools. The necessity of the current situation offers an opportunity to finally achieve that.
This would not solve the problem, but it is a contribution I have not yet seen made elsewhere and I cannot see any other way to achieve the outcomes both the Government and its critics are seeking to achieve, particularly in terms of maximising childcare provisions to allow parents  back to work.

8. Stop expecting schools to solve every social ill

Schools are a lifeline for many children and their families. That this is the case for so many is a systemic failure, not a success story. Teachers are not social workers but over many years the expectations placed on them have only increased, as has the workload. Getting schools ‘back to normal’ won’t work for the thousands of pupils failed by the old normal, or the thousands of teachers on the verge of leaving the profession due to stress, overwork and lack of support. It will also fail the many pupils whose additional support needs have never been met and who are regularly left to reach a point of crisis before an intervention is made to help them, if they get that help at all.
The new normal can’t repeat the failures of the old. Expecting schools to be a cure-all for society’s ills is not only disrespectful to hardworking, perennially exhausted school staff, it is destined to fail.
Schools can’t lift families out of poverty. Creating decent-paying jobs can

Schools can’t prevent families falling into crisis. A universal basic income can

Schools can’t tackle addiction and abuse within households. Well-resourced social work teams can
Our schools were amazing places before this pandemic, with thousands of miracles being delivered every day. But staff and pupils were being failed by decisions from on high that have let poverty and inequality fester and grow. Let’s cast that old normal to the history books. Let’s build back better.