This is a guest blogpost written by a teacher who wished to remain anonymous.

 

Hi there,

My name is irrelevant but what I have to say is not. In light of the current crisis in which we (still) find ourselves in, I’d like to share my perspective as a primary school teacher and the impact it has had, in my own experience. While I do not speak for every teacher or school staff member, or stakeholder, I know I do speak for many.

There are many reasons why teachers become teachers. Mine was the fact that I had been lucky enough to have a teacher called Mrs Reilly who made me, a painfully shy and insecure child, feel seen. If you have ever experienced this, you will understand its impact. If you have not, you will understand the need for this impact. To be in a position where I could essentially make these little impactful moments a reality for so many filled me with pure elation.

Fast forward to training to become a primary teacher. I did not have my honours in Irish nor did I score the 900000+ points needed in my Leaving Certificate to do so. Instead I focused on an education based undergrad degree before completing my PGCE (like so many) in the UK. I loved the training at the time but upon reflection, no whistle stop IT module or SEN assignment prepared me for what was waiting for me.

I worked abroad for a number of years gaining invaluable experience and meeting phenomenal children and families. With every class you meet a new personality, new need, discover new ways of teaching concepts, new ways of dealing with situations and people, new ideas. It is forever changing and evolving. And with this constant change comes constant learning, constantly researching, constantly seeking advise and support, constantly spending our own money on resources, constantly trying to be up to date, constantly differentiating lessons a million ways, CONSTANTLY working unpaid overtime, constantly trying to meet the diverse and specific individual needs of up on 30+ children. This constant chasing and multitasking is something we teachers continue to juggle. But while we love our children and do everything we can to ensure they are happy, healthy and articulate individuals, it comes at a price.

More often that not, we are exhausted. Emotionally, financially, mentally, physically. Because contrary to popular belief, we do more than spelling tests or just trying to teach children how to colour in between the lines. We are performers with many different hats. We have a sporting hat, an acting hat, a scientist hat, a language hat, a historian hat, a geographer hat, an artist hat, an explorer hat, a therapist hat, an OT hat, a SPL hat, a nurse hat, a mathematician hat, a writer hat, the list goes on. You see, our role is multifaceted and jumping from costume to costume is both an honour but exhaustive process. I am not saying we are the best in each hat, we are not, but we sure as hell do our best. And we continue to do our best and support our children and their families as best we can.

As a nation, we currently find ourselves battling a fight we never expected. My thoughts and heartfelt thanks and admiration goes to the heroes on the front line. Let us never ever forget the bravery, the courage, the sacrifices and commitment upheld by every single person (and their families) working in healthcare. Not just during this pandemic but always. In addition, the retail staff who are also putting so much on the line to ensure we have the supplies we need to survive. And so many others playing pivotal roles in this fight. This article does not intend to undermine or overshadow the efforts of thousands of others, I cannot speak for every profession but I can speak for my own.

Last March our schools closed with 70 cases reported in Ireland and 1 death. As we know, this had a huge impact on children, families, businesses and our society as a whole. Every situation was different. People’s life’s were thrown into chaos and disarray. Everyone had to adapt and at times, with little support. And fast.

My role as a class teacher changed over night. I like many others (teachers, SNAs, admin staff, parents etc.) had to put on a new hat. We were now performing a show we had no experience in. We worked tirelessly to do our best for our children and families. We up-skilled ourselves in a matter of a few hours because as previously mentioned, the whistle stop IT module I had experienced as part of my training degree did not prepare me for this. We catered approaches and provisions specifically to the needs of families (note how I say families, because it was families, it wasn’t just the children in our care). We delivered packs, resources, devices. We called our children and their families and gave our support to everyone, from the grandparents, carers, aunties and uncles, single parents, working from home parents, sick parents, anxious parents, struggling parents, eager parents, digitally illiterate parents. We did live classes, recorded lessons, sent specific videos to individual families to help with whatever query they may have had. We held virtual communion parties, confirmation quizzes, birthday dances. We answered calls and messages and emails from the early morning into the late hours every day of the week. We did all this while also trying to look after our own children, sick loved ones, work from home, care for our neighbours and just trying, like everyone else, to survive.

Believe me when I say, we desperately wanted to go back to school.

In September we returned to school with measures in place. Principals and SLTs were tasked with an impossible job of risk assessing every corner of school life and what measures needed to be put in place to ensure the safety of the children and staff. Our principle ensured every single precaution was in place. We wore masks, left windows open even in the coldest of days, sanitised our hands to within an inch of their lives and tried to enforce social distancing among children.

After Christmas, we were advised that schools will remain closed to minimise traffic and movement of people. And so, we find ourselves putting on this home learning hat again. But, they insisted, schools were safe. I need to make it unequivocally clear; schools are NOT safe.

We can put in every precaution until the cows come home (or the vaccination is rolled out) but, as school life goes, social distancing among children is near to impossible. Cross contamination of resources (and classrooms) is inevitable. Helping a child up or comforting a child when they are distressed is unavoidable. In many cases there are children with huge needs. As a result of these needs these children may bite, hit, lick, pull, kick, spit on members of staff and/or other children in their classes. No mask, pod, bubble or sanitiser protects against this. In a school setting, our contact lists multiply at alarming rates. Do NOT be fooled. Schools are not safe.

It is reported that children can carry this disease with no symptoms. The significant impact this has on other children and staff that comes into direct contact is terrifying. In other cases where there are symptoms, these have been brushed off or in some instances, ignored sometimes through the use of medication. In the cases where children (or their family members) tested positive, teachers and schools were NOT always notified. Siblings of children who had tested positive were encouraged to continue attending school and were not always advised to self-isolate. And while many children contracted the virus from school, where transmission occurred at home, this was recorded as community transmission.

We now have a new variant of this disease and people are becoming infected at much higher rates. We have the highest daily COVID rate in the world. People are still dying and the number of people infected are in the thousands. At the time of writing, there has been 170,000+ cases and 2595 deaths. Significantly more than the numbers recorded in March when schools were rightly deemed unsafe and forced to close. In December it was recorded that there was a 50% increase detected in schools following mass testing. I question whether it was always as high but nevertheless, the statistics are frightening. Yet, we are hearing the same nonsense narrative that schools are safe. This misinformation has to stop.

This is a huge slap in the face to the people who have been affected by this virus especially those who contracted it through a schooling capacity. Many have missed important milestones as a result of contradicting the virus through schools, many have missed Christmas with their loved ones and children, and have had to spend Christmas alone because they contracted this virus through schools. Many have been hospitalised because they contracted this virus through schools. And sadly, some have died as a result of it being contracted through schools. But the Department of Education and Public Health are trying to push this abysmal notion that schools are safe.

I do not need to do the maths here to explain how barbaric these claims are that schools are safe. Make no mistake, I do not know 1 teacher who wants the schools to shut. But we find ourselves at a moral crossroads. We are aware the significant impact this can have on our children in every way. But, we equally have a duty of care to both them and our own families to keep them safe. Children may regress but this regression is quickly catered for. Losing life is irreversible. As Simon Harris said ‘life and health has to come before anything else’.

The INTO replied to a concern regarding the badly organised returning of special classes to school in a short few days saying ‘As teachers we recognise the particular needs of some children and that a limited opening of schools to cater for such children, as is the case across most neighbouring countries, is appropriate, with specific supports, in advance of a more general reopening’. We cannot be compared with other countries. Our daily rate was recorded as the highest in the world. What other countries are doing is not applicable to us. But I do agree, we do recognise the needs of our children. And their health and safety is the number 1 need.

Last week the Department of Education issued a report where they said ‘ The known negatives of the impact of schools closures on children (student mental health, wellbeing, development, education attainment and overall health outcomes) outweighed any risks to reopening.’. I cannot tell you, from a human level, not a teacher level, how disposable and insignificant this made me feel. It highlighted for me how in the eyes of those in charge, we are seen merely as numbers. Our mental health, our physical health, our loved one’s health IS important. Losing health or in fact, life,certainly outweighs any positive outcomes of being in an UNSAFE environment. How dare they continue to push this narrative of schools being safe.

The way in which decisions have been made and information delivered has been nothing short of rushed, careless and abominable. Decisions are being made that may inevitability put thousands at risk. Those in charge have a duty to protect and defend us but in their claims of schools being safe, they are causing irreparable damage and harm to the reputation of teachers nationwide thus fuelling the fires of teacher bashing that we have never seen before. In their mission to spread misinformation about the safety of schools, they have thrown us into the lions den which forced thousands of teachers and SNAs to speak out. I question, had this have been handled differently, would we be subjected to this level of tarnishing in which we now find ourselves suspended?

I have read many times that some people suggested that teachers be put on the PUP scheme. I would agree, if we were not working ourselves to the bone. But we are. The majority of us are still doing everything in our power to keep giving children those impactful moments as mentioned at the beginning of this article. We are working tirelessly to ensure we can give our children the most impactful, manageable and meaningful home learning experiences that suits their family situations. I am so incredibly sorry if, you are part of that minority who have not received this level of support. We need you to know, this is not us all and it infuriates me to think of families feeling alone and unsupported.

I do empathise and understand how difficult times are for families, I do not escape this stress. But at the end of the day, safety is above anything else, the most important.

I understand the respite opening schools can offer families however, the issue goes much deeper than this. This pandemic has highlighted many things. But in particular it has highlighted the systemic failures in the provision for children and families with special and/or additional needs. Unfortunately, many lives are now being put at risk as schools are the plaster for the under resourced failing system. The support for our children with special and/or additional needs does not and should not start or end in schools. Schools are being used as a bargaining chip to cover up and deflect attention away from the lack of supports outside of schools, available to vulnerable families.

This isn’t just about the safety of anyone part of a school community, or in fact, of any community, this is also about protecting the health service who have been stretched and placed under significant pressure. The Government decided to restore the full pension to the highest-earning public servants, including former taoisigh, and award a 2 per cent pay rise to judges yet they voted against paying student nurses who worked during the pandemic? I think the healthcare community have been insulted enough. We do not need to add to this stress.

I am also aware of proposals from the INTO to help make the return to schools safe and one of which is prioritising school staff for the vaccine. Thank you. But this is ineffective if this is done AFTER opening schools. Among the other suggestions, many sound great in theory but in reality  they are unachievable.

I am not asking for praise or sympathy. I am not asking that we be held on a pedestal. I am asking for transparency, clarity, understanding and truth. It is time that those in charge are honest and stop spreading the nonsense that schools are safe. Acknowledge the risks that comes with it instead of insulting us all with lies.

I need to also make it clear that I could never do the job of our ministers. I cannot imagine the immense stress and pressure that must sit on their shoulders and I do think of the affect all of this can have on them and their families. But, I am a human too. Members of the school community are not invincible. Becoming a teacher you must protect children at all costs. We are not protecting our children by allowing them to return to schools. It is not safe for our children. It is not safe for staff. It is not safe for families.

After having COVID I have experienced the sheer anxiety, loneliness and worry that comes with this disease. I am lucky that I didn’t become what feels like an invisible statistic. But that doesn’t mean that someone else wont.

If you’ve gotten to the end of this article, thank you! Thank you for taking the time to read my perspective. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, I am open to respectful discussions and alternative opinions. I just ask that while we may have different outlooks, we don’t tear teachers down. We are already down. Let’s try pick each other up instead.

A fellow non-invisible, non- invincible human.