The education unions are right to say schools should not accept further mass return of pupils until the five tests are met. We should fully support any school workers who will take action on health and safety grounds from 1 June to keep their workplaces open only to vulnerable and key workers’ children.
That does not mean we, or school workers, are oblivious to how difficult school closures have been on families. Solidarity has covered, and will continue to cover, the increased risk of domestic violence and neglect in a stressful period with less contact between the household and the outside world.
There has been a problem getting vulnerable children to attend schools in this period because of understandable fear of the virus. School workers are discussing how to reach these children (a task made more difficult by arbitrarily ordering in entire year groups).
Mental health may be under strain in many families. It’s normal for children and their parents to feel worried or anxious at the moment. We’ve all experienced sudden changes in our routines — and we’re living with lots of uncertainty about the coming weeks.
There is a big concern that particularly in young people, the coronavirus pandemic may also worsen or trigger anxieties they were already struggling with. The lockdown has brought with it increased isolation. When lockdown restrictions were eased to allow gatherings of two people of different households, single parents of small children were horrified to find they’d be shut out, as they couldn’t meet others whilst also caring for their child.
The slightly increased risk of two members of a household being in the meeting should be accepted in order to mitigate against risk of isolation of single parents.
We know the government is pushing to bring schools back to ensure people can go back to work even if it is not yet safe. Many parents, particularly on low incomes, are desperate to get back to work as they are receiving no or reduced wages as they care for their child.
Others are expected to work from home whilst they look after their children. Full pay should be given to anyone who must take leave from work to care for others. This will not “solve” the issue of a sudden shift of even greater share of social reproduction into the home, and primarily onto women. It will reduce some of the pressure in homes.
Balancing public safety with increased demands on individuals for social reproduction is messy, and no solution will be perfect in such a difficult and unusual time. We have to understand how many families are struggling with school closures. Our arguments and demands must guard against moralising against stressed parents who desperately want it to be safe to reopen schools because they are struggling.
We must show full solidarity to school worker activists, many of whom are struggling parents as well as key workers and trade unionists.