Twas the night before so-called “Freedom Day”, Monday 19 July. England is removing most all Covid restrictions including requirements to wear face coverings and to socially distance. There are 48,161 daily cases, up 50% on last week, third highest in the world, but the new health secretary has said we must “learn to live with the virus”.
Our Prime Minister said we must “move from universal government diktat to relying on people’s personal responsibility”. Back on the 5th July, as soon as Boris Johnson announced his plan for Freedom Day, in our school we were thinking, “What must the parents of our overseas boarders be thinking of England right now, the most unrestricted society in Europe?” We drafted an email of reassurance to those parents saying that we would continue to ensure the safety of their daughters by going beyond whatever Downing Street required.
Twas the night before Freedom Day and the double-jabbed new health secretary Sajid Javid was “feeling a bit groggy” and isolating after testing positive for Covid. On Sunday morning, Downing Street said that two of his close contacts, the PM and the Chancellor of the Exchequor, were not required to isolate along with 1 million isolating Britons because they were participating in a pilot programme. Two hours and thirty seven minutes later, after the entirely predictable furious backlash, we were then told that both men would in fact be isolating. Insert your own U-turn adjective here: humiliating, handbrake, fastest, another, major, contemptible, GIF-inspiring, shameless, etc.
By Sunday evening the Prime Minister was then characteristically lying/trying to reframe his poor judgement by saying: “We did look briefly into the idea of us taking part in the pilot scheme which allows people to test daily, but I think it’s far more important that everybody sticks to the same rules”. Who is he trying to kid?
I am just back from a week in Aberporth with my wife and two daughters. It was delightful, our first break since summer 2019, and we have possibly never before needed a family holiday quite so much. We are fortunate at RMS; some schools have not yet broke up.
I am back in school tomorrow morning, continuing to prepare for the start of the next school year. Eighteen months into this pandemic, thinking about how we might start each term is essentially now a familiar three-stage thought process of looking into the future:
1/ Try to work out where the country will be by 1 September. How many cases, hospitalisations, and deaths? How anxious might some of our staff reasonably be by summer’s end? Most children won’t have been vaccinated, further new variants may have emerged, Long Covid will still be an issue in some colleague’s minds. What will our parents be thinking then? There is always a spectrum of thought here too, of course, but what will most parents be concerned about and what might they want to hear from us as a school? Most importantly, what will the pupils need after 18 months of Covid impacting their lives? My 9 year old daughter asked me this morning “When will all this Covid end?” Last week she was surprised to discover it had only been 16 months since schools first closed. She said it seems like many more years to her. It must do. What will all of the different pupils need after living through 18 months of this?
2/ Try to work out how the government will choose to present the UK’s Covid context to the press and public by 1 September, what they will require and expect of schools, and which bits of the DfE’s current “Operational Guidance” document for schools will have changed by then. Given that there have been 32 versions of that document in the last year we can rest assured that some things we are currently being asked to prepare for will change between now and the end of August.
3/ Factoring in all of the above, consider what we will do at our school to find the optimal point between an exceptional educational experience for the pupils and everybody being as safe as possible.
I realised today that I can’t write honestly about being a Head and running our school without putting life at our school in a broader national context that sometimes includes the current political context. The experience of everybody in schools this last year is enough evidence that successfully navigating our way through a pandemic is bigger and broader than personal responsibility. Being a headteacher in England during Covid can, at times, seem that we are living through the worst of times, an age of foolishness, an age of incredulity, a season of darkness, a winter of despair. We don’t seem to get much of the wisdom, the light and the hope from our leaders of late. It gives me no pleasure to type that time has told me we cannot always believe our Prime Minister and his government. And that is problematic for headteachers and their teams who take seriously their responsibility for the safety, well-being, and happiness of school communities.