Covid: Déjà vu all over again

Written by: Jon Richards | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Last-minute guidance amid surging Covid infections ahead of the start of the spring term – sound familiar? Do we really have to keep going through this again and again, asks Jon Richards

The government continues to out-do Yogi Berra. Not only have they caused “déjà vu all over again”, they keep doing it again and again and again – making last-minute changes to Covid measures and giving schools little time to implement them.

As we slid towards the end of the autumn term, with Covid case numbers rapidly rising and huge numbers of pupils and staff isolating, stakeholders on government advisory groups (and not just the unions) called for additional safety measures before Christmas to avoid a repeat of last year’s January return to school policy car-crash.

We also strongly urged the government to make early decisions and try to avoid last-minute changes in the days running up to the start of the new term.

To be fair to the Department for Education (DfE) officials, they have acknowledged that too often they have issued detailed new advice late on Fridays or over the weekend for introduction the following week. So, they too wanted to avoid a repeat of past failures and were hoping that the government would reach an early position and stick to it over winter break – they did of course caveat that the situation could change…

With this reassurance, education unions drafted our return-to-work messages and guidance and settled down for a restful Christmas and new year (we also put into place a plan B communications strategy, just in case…).

Sadly, as we predicted, cases continued to rise over Christmas and education unions were becoming increasingly concerned. However, we were also aware that much of the right-wing national press had their eyes on us and were sharpening their quills so they could trot out their usual clichéd headlines: “Unions want to close schools.”

In advance, one MP – Jonathan Gullis – was doing the media rounds telling everyone that we wanted to do this even before we had finished our turkey leftovers.

So we had to be careful and balanced in what we said, or the government would deploy the “dead cat” strategy and the unions would become the focus of the debate rather than the inadequate response of the government.

Officials from the main education unions met (virtually) after Christmas and, after comparing Christmas jumpers, agreed to draft a joint statement that emphasised (once again) that teachers, leaders and support staff desperately want to conduct face-to-face teaching for all children and young people on a consistent basis.

The statement noted that education staff have moved heaven and earth throughout the pandemic to support pupils and students and are acutely conscious that education and wellbeing are essential for children and young people.

Noting that education staff had been isolating in large numbers and that schools and colleges can’t reduce the threat posed by the virus alone, and that government had sat back, we called on ministers to take urgent and immediate steps to mitigate the risks to minimise disruption and to avoid a third successive year where GCSEs, A levels and other exams have to be cancelled.

With prime minister Boris Johnson’s post-Christmas announcements suggesting that nothing more was going to happen, we put our statement out to hit the Sunday papers on January 2.

Within hours of the embargoed copy going out, the DfE released its own press statement announcing additional Covid measures including the re-introduction of face coverings in secondary schools. A remarkable turnaround in such a short time, which begs the questions: Why did they wait until then? And why do they keep doing this?

Why do they keep hanging on until the last minute, allowing infections to spike further and further still and then, at the last minute, chucking out policies and dumping decisions and additional pressure onto schools with little notice?

We had thought that with a new ministerial team we might have moved on from the unpredictable days of Gavin Williamson.

Do we really have to keep going through this again (and again and again)?

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