The majority of schools in East Sussex have stayed open throughout the coronavirus pandemic for the benefit of some vulnerable children and the families of key workers. Over 2,000 have attended physically on some days, according to Cllr Keith Glazier, leader of East Sussex County Council (ESCC), though this number is only a fraction of the total that should qualify under these categories.  Other pupils will have stayed at home under lockdown, receiving online materials and tuition suitable to their ages and stages. Either way, teachers have been fully engaged – and many local parents experiencing a variety of schools express admiration for the ways in which both teachers and pupils (their own children) have adapted to a novel regime.

Yesterday (Monday 1st June) a first step was due to be taken towards general reopening of schools in the area: the physical re-convening of reception class, Year 1 and Year 6 in the majority of primary schools, plus some selective classes (mainly Year 10) in secondary schools and the first of two-year classes in sixth form colleges – though none apparently at East Sussex College or Bexhill College, who prefer to continue to rely on online learning.  Reopening has been criticised by teaching unions and, according to a county-wide survey conducted on SurveyMonkey by the Hastings Observer and associated media, disapproved by local popular opinion. Almost 64% of “Sussex residents” were reported to disagree, two thirds of these “strongly”. 

“Saying no to reopening”

Cllr Forward, leader of Hastings Borough Council and herself a former primary school teacher, wrote an open letter last week to the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, to Cllr Glazier and to heads of local academy trusts, stating that she does not want to see the schools in Hastings and St Leonards reopening “until we can ensure our children’s, our teachers’, our support staff’s and the wider community’s safety”.

She referred to “other councils who are standing up for their residents and communities and saying no to schools reopening more widely than they are already on 1st June.

“Saving lives is of paramount importance, and now is not a time to be guided by untested assertions and hypotheses but by facts and evidence.”

Lost learning

In response, Cllr Glazier wrote: “Our schools in East Sussex have responded magnificently to the challenges of lockdown…[But]

most children will have been out of school for ten weeks when Term 6 commences on June 1st and the impact of this, not only on learning but on wellbeing, is profound.

“Teachers and headteachers are concerned that, despite their best efforts, the lost learning will never be made up.

“This is particularly true for disadvantaged children and young people; those least likely to have the necessary space and digital access and least likely to have parents/carers available to provide targeted home schooling.

“The gap in the attainment of these children has been too great in East Sussex for some years and teachers are only too aware that this gap will be increasing with every lost day of schooling.”

Cllr Glazier acknowledged that, with schools differing in terms of size, buildings, staffing, location and pupil need, “one size certainly does not fit all”. But he endorsed “the commitment of our schools to their pupils and their determination to open for as many of them as they can safely accommodate in order to secure their learning, wellbeing and long-term success”.

Parental attitudes

So what do local parents think? HIP interviews suggest three contrasting attitudes.

Some are positively in favour, either because they feel their children have reached the limits of home-learning and need to re-connect with the outside world, particularly their schoolmates; or because they themselves cannot continue to devote themselves to home-teaching to the exclusion of other commitments; or both. There is general recognition in this group of a school system doing its best to cope.

One Year 6 parent, for instance, compliments the efforts being made at All Saints primary in Hastings: “Circumstances are not ideal, but the school look to be trying their very best with classes split into ‘bubbles’ with different arrival times, days, breaks, teachers etc. We wouldn’t have sent [our daughter] back were it not for it being her final year: nice to round it off, though because of the ‘bubble’ situation she won’t see all her friends.”

Government’s tests not met

Others adopt the position argued by Cllr Forward and apparently held by the surveyed majority: that the government’s tests for easing the lockdown have not been met, as regards either the current R infection rate or the establishment of a robust testing and tracing regime. Some point out that, even if children have been shown to be at very limited risk of suffering serious symptoms of Covid-19 themselves, they may remain potential carriers. In this view, not only are schools likely environments for transmission, whatever social distancing measures are adopted, it is the children of key frontline workers – their priority intake – who are most at risk of bringing the virus in and therefore spreading it on. 

There is also doubt that teachers believe in their own safety procedures. One father said: “We don’t intend to send [our daughter] back. We feel that there is not a degree of confidence among teachers and carers about how processes will work around teaching/caring and hygiene. In a few weeks, if things have settled down, we may reconsider.”

There is a third category of parents, who may not be over-concerned at the medical risk, but who regard the school’s social distancing measures themselves as countering the benefits of school return, particularly for younger children. The idea that a teacher may be unwilling to pick up a child who falls in the playground isn’t tolerable; nor is the imposition of rigorously applied distancing rules. One mother says: “I think it impossible to socially distance a pre-schooler. They don’t have the emotional development to regulate emotions, and have tantrums. They fall and need cuddles.”

In fact pre-school guidelines allow bubbles of up to eight kids to mingle freely, while avoiding contact with other bubbles. A local nursery supervisor says that this system works if there’s enough space – fine, therefore, while the majority of children have been withdrawn. As they return, it will be less practicable. Many nurseries will be unviable economically at more extended density.

And that’s the problem for all schools. Dividing class numbers in half may be a solution for the rest of this summer term, because many of their pupils may not be invited to attend; and, of those that are, a sizeable proportion will not turn up. Suggestions that this could be a ‘new normal’ for the autumn term starting in September look a lot less realistic.

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