In The Thick Of It: Education In A Pandemic

Reporting from the front lines of the relentless drive to get back to normal, no matter what.

This has been a very long year. It seems that we are now in the throes of the much-vaunted ‘second spike’ of Covid-19, a virus which – were governmental policy to be believed, trusted or valued – only has the temerity to spread after ten o’clock, and in pubs at that. Does anyone really believe that hospitality is to blame for the rise in numbers? Not a bit of it. Making adults keep curfews they haven’t had since their teenage years is simply a way of looking busy, of doing something, when a far more likely candidate for the huge upsurge in cases is staring us straight on the face. Thing is, to do something about that would mean closing schools, colleges and universities, and it seems that this is frankly beyond the pale. According to the government’s latest ‘three-tier’ strategy – and I use ‘strategy’ very guardedly in this context – the entire country could be brought to another grinding halt in a tier three scenario, but schools will remain open, no matter what. Under no circumstances will parents be expected to keep company with their own offspring again. Having tried it for the first time earlier this year, the collective trauma was so great that it would be vote suicide to attempt it again.

So, the birth of the second spike, oddly coincidental with the beginning of the academic year, will not mean closure for places of education. That’s final. But spare a thought for people working in this situation, a job which is always challenging, but now comes handily combined with a plethora of additional duties. Here’s a little snapshot of how things stand at the moment.

On a daily basis, the Covid lists come round: these include students who have tested positive, or are waiting on a test result, as well as the students who have to isolate as a precaution. At the beginning of the week the Covid lists can mean you need to send students straight back home, as they have unwittingly been sat with someone else who is now in isolation. You’re also faced with parents who are apparently epidemiologists in their spare time, deciding that although little Johnny has a racking cough and a high temperature, it’s ‘probably not Covid’ so into school or college he goes, until such time as you espy his symptoms and have to get him put into isolation, something which necessitates the full gamut of PPE to do. This is also a fine time to skive, beloved of students who were pretty good at it to start with, so expect certain of them to be ‘isolating’ as a precaution, for the third or fourth time in a row. Lessons have to be simultaneously conducted in person and to a webcam for absentees. The amount of admin – emails, text alerts, chasing students, dealing with queries – has drastically escalated.

No wonder so many of these students are falling genuinely ill, though: the attitude of the 15-25 age group is one of extreme indifference blended with stupidity. Masks are meant to be worn in public areas, for example: the uptake of this is dwindling and dwindling, and a great deal of time is being devoted to trying to reverse it. Regardless of how effective you might think masks are, they at least offer some protection from the virus’s spread, a virus which is proportionately much more dangerous for the poor sods trying to reinforce the message than it is for the eye-rolling, sometimes directly challenging youngsters with a mask slung louchely over one ear, if at all. And, if this is the way you choose to ‘fight the power’, then it’s a spectacularly shite hill to die on which risks other people, just so you can either make a very weak stand or showcase your own ignorance. As women aged 20-40 see a substantial rise in hospitalisations for Covid complications – being disproportionately represented in education and childcare roles – it’s incredibly frustrating to see first-hand how little some people seem to care. It’s alright, though: there’s a big square marked out on the classroom floors beyond which you cannot pass, or risk being within two metres of our dear superspreaders. That will no doubt make up for it all.

Ultimately, infection with Covid is looking increasingly like an inevitability for many education professionals. Unable, like management, to ‘work from home’, the worker ants are not really given a fighting chance of keeping clear of the virus. Yes, you can wash your own hands and you can wear a mask, and yes, you can do your best to keep socially distant, but the practicalities are becoming pretty overwhelming. The ‘bubble’ students are in as a way of ‘keeping everyone safe’ seems to change with the wind, and is in essence just paying lip service to proper precautions; the truth is that young people are inevitably mixing with one another at close quarters and spreading the virus everywhere they go. Because another cessation of education is unpalatable to people not having to deal with the practicalities, this is what we’re faced with, and the situation shows no current signs of improvement. Just day after day of pleading with teenagers to take some small step to avoid spreading illness, secondary responsibilities as cleaners and Covid marshalls, and a grinding sense that, at some point soon, our best efforts will be in vain. But hey, that early stop-tap is really hammering that infection rate, eh?

HE Lecturer’

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