21 May 2020

contagion layman

Playground antics

Hannah Jane Parkinson tries to follow the debate about the reopening of school, with a little help from the Daily Mail

Aschoolyard scrap has broken out. Or perhaps it will be at the gates after the bell. Collect all your friends’ rings. Tie your hair back. Boys; ready yourself to have your jumper pulled over the top of your head from the back.

Except this time, the fight is between teachers and the government (with, for the most part, parents in the teachers’ corner. Unless you are the Daily Mail, reporting that the “callous” teachers’ union is “plotting”. It’s wild that the Mail’s usual game is denigrating teachers about not being able to organise a lesson plan to its exacting standards, but now has them as group WhatsApp rebel masterminds).

This is the pencil cases at dawn dispute that is the government’s policy of sending some kids (nursery, reception, years one and six) back to lessons from June 1st and, in the main, teachers giving this plan a big, fat F. Basically, the economy cannot move again until people are back to work – and that means kids have to be at school again.

That makes sense but, as ever when central government is uncoupled with reality, the practicalities are a little different. Avoiding public transport might be fine for those who own a car; live within walking distance of school; or already own bikes, but that will not be the case for everyone. Hence with the blue-collar workers being sent back into the fray. Footage of packed buses emerges, while those of us fortunate enough not to be in that position tut over the lack of social distancing.

The back-to-schools directive is just another facet of what seems to be the side effects of the pandemic (as well as the disease itself) falling disproportionately on the poorer, more vulnerable and less privileged. In this case sending their children to learn in potentially unsafe environments, where the virus might spread like peanut butter on packed-lunch sandwiches (private schools are offering online resources and classes, I believe to a greater extent than frazzled state school teachers; and Eton has probably already made a cash offer for Zoom, so they’re alright).

I have no doubt that the area of schooling during lockdown has been difficult for the key five parties involved: kids; parents; teachers; the stuffed toys in classrooms who have been summarily abandoned and won’t understand why; and education secretary and erstwhile defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, who has had to attempt whole sentences during the daily briefing without making his fingers into a toy gun and going “pew pew” and announcing a khaki camo uniform policy, going forward.

This has been a tough debate for me to follow, because as much as I enjoy playing with kids, and as much as we have the same mental age when it comes to taste in humour; as much as I hugely respect teachers for the work that they do; and that many of friends are parents… any discussion about childcare bores me to tears. I zone out in approximately 0.8 seconds — if I am really concentrating. I don’t mean this rudely, just honestly.

I cannot therefore offer advice as to whether to send your children back to school, because I am already thinking about something else as I type this sentence; but what I do know is that I always trust those with empirical experience over abstract policy makers (who should be consulting those with empirical experience). My final word on this is that it did make me laugh when Jonathan Van Tam said at his lectern, “For those of us who have encountered children”, as if they were one of those special eclipses that only ever happens once every century or something.

To personal news: a tree has fallen down in my garden. I wish this was hyperbole on my part; like, maybe a branch had broken off. But no. An actual entire tree was blown over during those two days of assaulting wind we had. Worse, it fell down across the sun loungers, so now I have nowhere to sit in the sun. I can’t bring another chair out to sit elsewhere in the sun, because — hence the positioning of the sun loungers — the bit where the tree has landed was the sunny spot. This means I am spending a lot of time googling “tree surgeons in my area” which simultaneously makes me feel about 80-years-old and that I am starring in a porn film. The best thing about the tree falling down is that it happened on the day the government announced its (presumably Isaac Levido’s) new slogan: Stay Alert; a neighbour had to call me about the tree, because I hadn’t even noticed.

Finally, the list of things I am dreaming about doing when lockdown has ended (Pub! Sex! Swimming! Haircut! Sex! Spending the entire day in a cinema! Sex!) has a new entry: visiting donkeys. This is thanks to a scoop by the Mail (them again), which revealed that Keir Starmer bought a field to set up a donkey sanctuary for his severely ill mother. This apparently was supposed to make him look bad. Obviously, it makes him look very good indeed, and the only disappointment during the whole episode was the fact my “Keir Farmer” joke was not widely appreciated. With apologies to Starmer, a QC: there is no justice in the world.

Illustrations by Tim King

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