Working with my London secondary school students this week, I’ve been surprised by their reactions to coronavirus. Sure, there was a flurry of fake news early on – including one rumour that certain races were immune – and the odd rubber glove went on in the classroom, but none of them seem to be panicking. In fact from my viewpoint as a teacher I’d say there’s more anxiety among adults than children.
Perhaps it’s because this generation has grown up in such close proximity to risk: the globe is burning, there’s a guy in the White House who’s been accused of sexual assault, knife crime can take loved ones out of nowhere and social media make sure you can watch it all live. Why should corona be any different? I both respect them for their calm stability and worry about their possible desensitisation.
Should schools like mine follow Ireland’s and close now? Working on the inside, schools do feel like giant petri dishes: all those tiny, warm handprints smeared enthusiastically on the glass panes of doors demonstrate the fact that schools are not like any other crowded work places. They are particularly prone to contagion. Hundreds of students brush past each other on crowded staircases during lesson change-overs, and children everywhere tend to be less hygiene-conscious than adults.
In every classroom, dozens of books have to be handed out before the lesson starts, all of them touched by kids before they are collected up again. There’s no time to wash your hands before the next class is in, so that’s another set of handing-outs and collecting-ins, repeated maybe six times a day. It’s the equivalent of hundreds of handshakes an hour. Then there are the desk, the chairs and the tables used for lunch. It’s impossible to wipe down everything properly before each sitting. Even if kids can withstand infection, they can quickly take it home to families who can’t.
On the other hand, closing schools would have serious costs. Teachers are painfully aware that restricting school access would not impact all students equally. Online lessons might be an option for some, but what about families without computers or internet access? Or families that have one computer but more than one child? Poorer families are also less likely to have a quiet space at home in which to study. I’m thinking of kids I’ve taught who sleep seven to a room
As well as that, low-income parents would be left having to feed children who would otherwise get free school meals, as well as having to pay for the extra tissues, snacks, heating and so on that would normally be provided by the school for a big proportion of every day. That’s all before we factor in lost income from parents staying at home from work on childcare duty. And does anyone know how many NHS workers would be taken out by having to look after kids no longer in school? Meanwhile, there are genuine concerns about welfare and mental health when you trap kids in circumstances where their only social communication is by way of phones and negative news. My heart shudders for those we suspect come from abusive or neglectful homes.
If ultimately we do have to close schools, we will need to look at how we can meet such challenges. For a start, we know that even when computer access is low, ownership of mobile phones is near-universal in secondary schools. Offering free internet to under-18s through phones and creating apps to help students use them for study is likely to have a much higher pick up rate. Anything that gives kids agency is likely to work. Education about the facts of what’s happening and how they can be leaders in the fight to stop the spread of corona could help both mental and physical health.
Secondly, we can all keep an eye on our neighbours. If you don’t have kids and have a computer to spare, why not wipe it down and hand it over for a few weeks? If you’ve bulk-bought loads of tissues and you know the mum down the road hasn’t had time to get down to the supermarket, maybe you could just offer some. In addition, modelling calm, sensible behaviour that doesn’t involve panic buying or fighting in supermarket aisles sets a good example for our children. They are watching how we handle this. As I said, my students seem calmer than most adults. But panic is just as contagious as corona. Let’s protect them from that too.
Rowenna Davis is a teacher, political activist and writer. Follower her on Twitter.
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