I have been a teacher for 31 years, a head teacher for 16 years and, at the age of 55, this much I know about the challenge of keeping our students socially distant in school.
I was born two months after Boris Johnson. I have a heart condition. This week I was due to have a replacement pacemaker fitted, the same week the Prime Minister was admitted to St Thomas’ Intensive Care Unit. My operation was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Four years ago I contracted pneumonia. My GP told me that if, after taking a second lot of antibiotics, I did not feel better within 24 hours, I should go straight to A&E. You can die of this, he said.
I know what it is to feel overwhelmingly weary, to be unable to catch my breath, to feel afraid. Contracting pneumonia was, quite frankly, terrifying.
And all this went through my mind last night as I geared myself up to open school today with the help of five colleagues. On the way to work, there was chatter on Radio 4’s Today programme about reopening schools, from experts who have, perhaps, forgotten the experience of their own school days.
We had nine students to look after – the other 1,522 were at home.
I spent most of today yelling, “TWO METRES!” at our small group of wonderful youngsters. I have a responsibility to keep them and my colleagues safe from each other.
And I want to remain safe too. I really do not fancy contracting COVID-19. Consequently, I am relentless in my exhortations to maintain social distancing.
Keeping each other safe is an exhausting enterprise. For the past four weeks I have felt like something is sitting heavily on my chest. It is a level of permanent tension. It rises on a Tuesday night and peaks during my rota-day Wednesday. For the rest of the week it is a constant presence. I know I am not running a COVID-19 ward, but my fears are very real.
As I grumbled around our corridors and out on the school field, the words of the so-called experts came back to me. “Schools could open. Students should maintain social distancing procedures and remain in the same room all day, through breaks and lunchtimes.”
Our students are young teenagers. Remaining two metres apart from each other is an unnatural thing for them to do, as is sneezing into the crook of their elbow, or using a tissue, or washing their hands thoroughly, or keeping their fingers out of their mouths, noses and eyes.
It was a long day, but the young people were just great. They even let me win the penalty shoot-out. But it was all we could do to keep these nine socially distant, with a student-teacher ratio of 2:3. Imagine what it would be like with 1,531 students in school and a third of our staff self-isolating?
We reckon you could keep just 13 secondary-aged students socially distant in an average classroom. If we returned to school after Easter, to ensure over 1,700 people remained safely socially distant we would need twice the number of classrooms and twice as many teachers. We would require many more buses to get them there. And how we would feed everyone, when we would be stuck in the same room all day, I cannot quite imagine.
At 3.20 pm today, as we bid farewell to our students, I felt drained.
On the way home I popped into the local Tesco mini-mart. It was all but empty, until a nurse suddenly appeared at the other end of the aisle. I caught her eye and simply said, “Thank you”. She looked bemused at first, but then realised what I meant.
She was reciprocally thankful to all the other key workers: the super market shelf-fillers; the bus drivers; the refuse collectors; the police; the teachers. She was upbeat because the personal protective equipment had arrived today. She was a district nurse. She had been sneezed over for the past month, but the newly acquired surgical masks were a godsend.
Fortunately for me, we were interrupted by another shopper and our conversation was curtailed. I paid for my dishwasher tablets and held it together until I made it to my car. And it was then that I gave in and wept.