Comment Editor Chelsie Henshaw discusses the return to work amid Coronavirus, in particular what this means for two primary school teachers
Coronavirus has impacted the ability of everyone to do their jobs and has seen many furloughed and staying at home. However, with Boris Johnson’s recent plans to start easing the country out of lockdown, people working in certain professions have started returning to work. Experts have warned that this lockdown period will fundamentally change our lives. Many people are fearful of returning to work amidst the continuing effects of the coronavirus. This anxiety and fear is particularly true for those who work in professions such as the hospitality industry and teaching as they will inevitably be coming into close contact with other people.
As fear circulates amongst Britons and experts raise concerns, I spoke to two people in education about the situation. The contributors will remain anonymous and referred to as Sarah and Lucy for the purposes of this article.
Sarah stated that ‘it is impossible to physically distance yourself all the time’, using the example of giving first aid to an injured child to highlight this. However, on the whole, they claimed that whilst it has been ‘strange’ with the strict social distancing measures, ‘things have been working really well.’ Seemingly, it is extremely difficult to manage COVID-19 measures consistently in schools as young children cannot understand the severity of the situation. Imagine being told at the age of ten that you could not play with your friends. There should be awareness about how difficult this situation is for staff, but also for students who have had their school lives completely upturned. So, how can the government make the transitions easier for both teachers and children? Simply put, more guidance is required on how to manage this ever-evolving situation.
Lucy addressed how unprecedented these times are, with schools never having closed for so long in living memory. Lucy discussed their concerns and anxieties with the lack of support from the Department of Education. Although the Department of Education has been conducting daily briefings, Lucy stated that they are unhappy with the ‘lack of guidance’ being given on the issues, with the responsibility largely falling on ‘individual headteachers to conduct risk assessments’. The government has seemingly failed to address the practicalities needed for returning to schools, with Lucy suggesting that schools are ‘stretched to the limit’ as they attempt to accommodate social distancing measures. Lucy condemned the government for their narrow timeframes, suggesting that ‘the government needs to give schools adequate time to prepare for any changes’ and needs ‘to communicate their decisions to schools prior to telling the general public.’
Lucy remains ‘unconvinced’ that schools are safe for return. The government originally stated that schools would not reopen until the ‘five tests’ had been met, yet these tests ‘have merely been scrapped.’ It seems that many do not agree with the government’s decision to reopen schools so early as they have failed to provide the support and reassurance which is required by those returning to work. Lucy continued that ‘many of [their] colleagues are anxious about returning […] they worry that the scientific evidence is not robust enough; they worry about the increased population movement leading to greater rates of transmission; they worry for the vulnerable people they live with or care for; they worry about the effects on the children of a very different experience of school.’
The government needs to do more to ease the anxieties of those returning to work. These times are difficult for everyone, but in particular for schools. Whilst Lucy stated that their school has handled the situation ‘wonderfully’, they are ‘disappointed’ with the lack of support from the government. After speaking to both Sarah and Lucy, they both seem to be satisfied with the ways in which the schools themselves are preparing for the return of pupils, yet Lucy emphasised that the government needs to do more to ease worries and anxieties. I think the government should follow in the footsteps of the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern who has handled the situation perfectly.
Additionally, will people want to return to work if they’ve become accustomed to 80% pay and staying at home, especially those who are at a higher risk of the virus. This is a concern that the government should take into account when encouraging people to go back to work. Many are concerned about the safety of going back to work and some people arguably have coped well working from home. Could the coronavirus set a new precedent for those wishing to work from home? Only time will tell.
On the other hand, many are eager to go back to work as lockdown has become tiresome for most and the novelty of having extra time and being at home has worn off. Personally, I believe many will want to return to work for the sake of structure, routine, and productivity, although people should only return if it is safe to do so.
Another point that must be raised is that some people have no choice whether to return to work, for example, those who work for the non-essential shops which are due to reopen. If they do not return to work, they put their jobs in jeopardy. Yet, for some, the impact on their mental health could be catastrophic. I think more plans need to be put into place for those who do not feel comfortable enough to go back to work given the current situation.
Returning to work as lockdown restrictions are lifted is a delicate and tricky subject. Many wish to return to work as they are becoming restless and want to return to some form of normality. Nevertheless, we must remember the gravity of COVID-19 and remember that the threat of the virus does not automatically decrease as restrictions are lifted. The question we must ask ourselves before returning to work: are there satisfactory safety measures in place to protect me from the virus? If the answer is no, do not return to work. The most important thing to do during these times is to protect your personal safety and the safety of those around you.