I spoke to some Essex primary teachers about how they’ve coped during the pandemic – or not. They all wanted to do the best for their pupils but felt stress when they couldn’t. Some worry related directly to the pandemic was inevitable; more resulted from government mandates. Many caring professionals are disheartened, and in some cases have had enough.
It’s two years since Covid-19 was first recorded in the UK, but many school staff were already worried before the first lockdown on 24 March 2020, willing the government to close schools as anxiety about coronavirus grew. Teachers knew that families who’d been to Italy for half-term skiing holidays had returned carrying the virus, and in class those children were unknowingly infecting others. Schools finally closed just under two weeks before the Easter holiday and would not reopen ‘til June for some children, and September for all. There was a further closure in 2021, and school life is still not normal.
In June 2020, the government mandated that Early Years and Years 1 & 6 should do a phased return. It was intended that other primary year groups should start before the summer holidays, but that plan was later dropped. Again, in 2021, the planned post-Christmas return was abandoned after one day. On January 5th schools were suddenly locked down again. These last-minute changes were challenging, as new guidelines were often announced during holidays or at weekends. Staff felt they were not consulted, resulting in measures unworkable with real children in real buildings. The sacked Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, must take much responsibility for the shambles created for schools during the pandemic, and it must be galling for teachers to now see him knighted.
Bubbles and sanitising
Guidelines for reopening schools in 2020 were impractical, particularly persuading young pupils to stay two metres apart (impossible in a classroom anyway!), providing individual equipment, or constantly sanitising everything. Staggering the start and end of the day was also a big headache: one teacher said hours were spent “shepherding children in and out in separate bubbles”. Nowadays, the issue is often ventilation. Windows are kept open for airflow, but in winter everyone felt cold, often wearing coats indoors. Unsatisfactory air monitoring equipment has not helped. Teachers reported receiving some carbon dioxide monitors, but many didn’t work properly. And none I spoke to had yet received the promised air purifiers.
Unfamiliar ways of teaching
Despite a misconception they were relaxing at home, teachers actually had increased workloads, and reported constant exhaustion. Classes were open for key workers’ and vulnerable children, but teachers also had to quickly learn to use online platforms to teach those at home. One Early Years professional said home lessons were very challenging and they “trialled lots of different ways to do it”.
Schools also phoned families daily, supporting parents worried about jobs and health. Time was spent tracking down anyone not engaging with home learning. Helping grateful parents with grammar or maths strategies was a positive, allowing the chance to get “to know some families more than normally”, but some parents expected teachers “to be on call whenever they were doing the set work” at home.
Papering over the cracks
All those I spoke to said that when colleagues were off sick or isolating, they couldn’t get supply cover, and the initiative to encourage retired teachers back did not happen. So, staff had to cover classes during time meant for other tasks, like planning digital lessons.
Gaps in academic progress between children have widened, because some engaged in lockdown learning while others did nothing. With continuing high rates of absence teachers report “constantly playing catch-up”.
After the lockdowns, teachers described having to manage pupils’ “extreme behaviour” and anxiety, and it is known that language skills were negatively affected, which can lead to longterm effects on all learning. Teachers have adapted to support children as much as possible, but say that they must “start from where children are now” rather than rushing to recover two disrupted years. Robert Halfon, Harlow MP and Chair of the Education Select Committee, says the pandemic has been a “national disaster” for schools.
The extra tutoring funds were welcomed, but this was yet another initiative to manage, and Randstad, the private company who administer the scheme, has still only reached 15 percent of its target number of students.
‘Put at risk’
Education staff were not prioritised for Covid jabs, despite the daily risk in class. One said that “adults working in schools were not really thought of in terms of safety or wellbeing”. In Suffolk, as in the rest of the UK, staff felt anxious about taking the virus home to vulnerable family members. Many contracted Covid and some lost loved ones. Most parents were supportive, but some were critical and abusive. One teacher said they were “shouted and sworn at” and made fun of for mask-wearing. Some parents moaned about schools on social media, perhaps fuelled by negative media coverage. One staff member said ‘teacher-bashing’ had escalated during lockdown.
Mental health pressure
The pandemic has taken its toll on school staff. Despite the disruption, learning expectations must still be met and Ofsted still prepared for. Some headteachers have quit over lack of understanding from Ofsted.
I spoke to younger members of the profession who’d never known a normal year and hoped school life would ‘settle down’.
I also heard from demoralised senior staff wishing to retire early, dismayed by the negative treatment from those unaware of the reality. One believed the pandemic had exacerbated existing underfunding issues.
Again, schools seem to be the sponge expected to soak up the fallout from society’s problems. It’s a job which requires constant enthusiasm and energy, but the overwhelming demands of the pandemic have made this nearly impossible for an already over-stretched profession. There is no slack built into education provision to meet extraordinary demands, so when crises happen, there are limits to what can be achieved. All teachers really want is to be able to properly do the job they love.