Why schools expect better over Covid and reopening plans in wake of Omicron surge – Jayne Dowle

I’D pay good money to see Health Secretary Sajid Javid and my brother-in-law, a primary school deputy headteacher, in a head-to-head debate about ‘‘personal responsibility’’.

When will there be clarity on the reopening of schools? Columnist and parent Jayne Dowle poses the question.
When will there be clarity on the reopening of schools? Columnist and parent Jayne Dowle poses the question.

As teachers, parents and pupils gear up for a return to the classroom next week, Downing Street seems to have forgotten that schools are major hotbeds of infectious diseases.

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Why the silence? And where is Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, who gained such an impressive track record as minister in charge of the vaccine rollout? He’s been suspiciously quiet.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi during a school visit.

Parents, teachers and pupils are correct to have concerns. We haven’t forgotten last January, when classes resumed for a day before schools were compelled to close and youngsters sent home. Parents had to curtail plans to return to work, hastily arranging childcare and homeschooling. It was beyond disruptive, detrimental to education, social wellbeing and family incomes.

Back then we could blame Mr Zahawi’s predecessor, the hapless Gavin Williamson, who was given the boot in the September reshuffle; it just added to the litany of his unforgiveable errors.

However, there should be no excuses now. And does Mr Zahawi not realise that this government mantra of ‘‘personal responsibility’’ throws up a whole new set of problems when it comes to schools?

It’s fair to say that coronavirus chaos has reigned for many families this Christmas. As if we needed reminding, no strain of the virus respects timetables and term dates.

When will there be clarity on the reopening of schools? Columnist and parent Jayne Dowle poses the question.

Three days after finishing the school term for Christmas, my brother-in-law attended his booster jab appointment. And on the same day, he tested positive for coronavirus. His symptoms – what felt like a bad cold, sore throat, runny nose, aching limbs – suggested that he was suffering from the Omicron variant, but as with so many things these days, he wasn’t sure.

What was definitely certain was that Christmas was cancelled this year. He’s spent the festive season holed up in the ensuite bedroom, with only the puzzled family dog for company. His elder son fell ill, then his daughter, both with mild symptoms. His wife and younger son appear – so far – to have escaped, but they’re all confining themselves to barracks until the New Year turns.

They’re the kind of law-abiding family who would never knowingly break a rule, and with elderly parents, wouldn’t have risked putting anyone into danger. However, questions have been asked, moral dilemmas aired, teenagers argued with, placated, reassured.

It’s been the same in our house this Christmas, and no-one – thankfully – has even tested positive. Two days before December 25 my 16-year-old daughter came downstairs in tears. Her friend, who had been with us in a confined space over the weekend of December 18, had tested positive and let her know immediately.

Lizzie was aghast, the prospect of Christmas Day with her grandparents on a knife edge. First job – test everyone. Silly me. I assumed that with dad having been in the shielding category for months, it would be a simple matter of asking his local chemist for a box of lateral flow tests.

Back dad came on the phone. The chemist didn’t have any, but advised him to ring the NHS 119 line to place an order. Dad may have got this a little mixed up – he is 78 after all – but the operator said he was only entitled to LFTs if he was showing coronavirus symptoms, which thankfully he wasn’t.

My son, meanwhile, has worked in contact with the public throughout the pandemic, played football, travelled up and down from London on public transport, socialised heavily with his friends, and has never had even a sniff of coronavirus. His judgment of risk and my parents’ judgment of risk are at opposite ends of the scale.

It’s all very well for Mr Javid to say that from now on, the onus must be on personal responsibility. The problem is setting this against every shade of personal judgment, and having access to the facts.

Most people I know generally want to do the right thing. However, I don’t think government ministers appreciate just how difficult it is to judge personal responsibility when we are asked to make decisions on the basis of information which too often seems inaccessible, contradictory and worryingly non-existent, as in the case of schools.

And let’s not forget the strain all this places on mental and emotional health, especially on teenagers and children. If we are to keep our side of the bargain, we need clarity and honesty, not smoke, mirrors or silence.

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