From vaccines to laptops: The pandemic to-do list for education grows...

Written by: Dr Patrick Roach | Published:

From the digital divide to teacher vaccination, the government’s pandemic to-do list for education is growing longer by the day. Dr Patrick Roach calls for definitive action and a national plan for schools

The closure of primary schools, secondary schools and colleges to the majority of pupils and a move to remote education is regrettably the only safe course of action to deal with the increased threat and surging coronavirus levels connected to the new variant.

Maintaining education provision during the lockdown and re-opening schools safely once restrictions begin to ease is now the priority and we believe the government must learn the lessons of the last nine months.


Attendance

The government has widened the definition of who is considered to be vulnerable and so eligible to attend school during lockdown to include those children who may find it hard to study remotely due to a lack of connectivity or suitable home environment in which to study.

However, this national lockdown will be wasted if it does not result in substantially fewer people being infected with the virus, and that can only happen if the vast majority of people, including children and young people, stay at home. That is why we are calling on parents to support the message to “Stay at Home-Keep them Safe”.


Digital divide

The first lockdown exposed the digital divide across the UK, with approximately nine per cent of children without access to a laptop, desktop or tablet according to Ofcom. The government will be putting these children, their families and communities at greater risk if it does not ensure that they are putting the resources into place so that that every child is able to continue to access learning in safety from their home.

While the government has provided schools with additional laptops and devices for pupils, we remain concerned that the number available so far falls far short of what is required. The government needs to step up its action and deliver on its promise to ensure that every child away from school has the data and device that they need to log in and learn freely from home. This requires a register of which children are without the technology or connectivity and a clear plan for how they will quickly receive this.


The impact of poverty

The government must take action to ensure that access to remote education and the measures to protect lives do not depend on household circumstances and income. Families on low incomes also need to be fully supported to be able to stay at home without suffering further financial hardship.

Unless further action is taken, the government’s lockdown measures could result in the poorest families being placed at greater harm as a result of this deadly virus, simply because they do not have access to practical support, including remote education technology and the funding needed to access it. Staying safe in education should not depend on parents’ ability to pay.


Re-opening of schools

Ministers must use this period to listen to and genuinely engage with the workforce over the plans for the safe re-opening of schools at the right time.

When schools do re-open fully this must be on a sustainable and safe footing with additional safety measures and mitigations in place so that further disruption to pupils’ education is minimised.

Such measures must include effective arrangements for the mass testing of pupils, provisions to support social distancing between staff and pupils and for the mandatory wearing of face masks and visors in all areas of schools and colleges.

Corners must not be cut on safety due to cost and ensuring schools are provided with financial support must be part of the package of enhanced measures brought forward by the government for schools and colleges. However, it is already clear that many schools are struggling to meet the additional costs of being Covid-secure.


Vaccination

Disruption to children’s education cannot be allowed to continue. The government needs to do everything possible to ensure that schools can continue to remain open free from the disruption caused by the pandemic. That’s why we are also calling for education staff to be given priority access to coronavirus vaccines.

The first minister in Scotland has already pledged to support this. It is time for the Westminster government to do the same. The nature of teaching and dealing with the complex and special needs of many pupils presents additional risks to the safety of school and college staff which are comparable to those that exist in the provision of health and social care.

Schools are the best place for our children and young people to be, but this requires recognition on behalf of government that in a pandemic high-quality teaching and learning cannot be secured without regard to the health and safety of pupils and staff.

We now need to see a national plan from the government for the recovery of education and the economy which has safe schools and colleges at its core.

  • Dr Patrick Roach is the general secretary of the NASUWT.


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