I have first-hand experience of life inside schools during a pandemic (Picture: Anthony Devlin/Bloomberg via Getty Images
When Boris Johnson announced a national lockdown, and the subsequent closure of schools, I felt a wave of relief.
As an A Level student, I love learning and work hard to achieve good grades. I have a genuine love for the subjects I am studying and doing well is crucial to my goal of going to university to read politics and sociology.
The closure of schools to most pupils for the foreseeable future will not only have a massive impact on my education but that of an entire generation.
Yet it was the right thing to do.
I have first-hand experience of life inside schools during a pandemic. It’s not pretty.
Even on the first day back in September 2020, my friend and I found ourselves in a crowded corridor with barely anyone aside from ourselves wearing masks. It was terrifying. We exchanged looks of concern, and, frankly, disbelief – then both messaged our parents about what we’d just experienced.
They encouraged us to continue to wear our masks and keep our distance although social distancing was rarely maintained – hardly surprising in a school with almost 1,000 pupils filtering through the same corridors, despite the staff’s best efforts to keep us in our bubbles.
My year group was eventually sent home a week before the Christmas break, due to a lack of teachers. We were all constantly on the edge, wondering who the next person will be to fall ill, making sure we took our books home with us in case someone tested positive by the next morning.
My brother, in Year 10, who attends the same school, has had a quarter of the term off since returning in September due to positive cases in his year.
Watching cases rise constantly over the Christmas holiday made me tense as I wondered what was going to happen. I knew the Government would have to act, yet they consistently stated their aims to keep schools open for as long as possible.
When I thought of going back, I felt like I had blood on my hands. I was more worried about unintentionally giving someone the virus than catching it myself, and a lot of my peers felt the same way.
I believe the move to remote learning is the right thing to do (Picture: Catherine Shuttleworth)
After being inconsistent for months, Mr Johnson has now finally confirmed not only that learning should move online for most pupils, but that the majority of exams will be cancelled.
It isn’t a perfect plan – the ‘alternative arrangements’ he mentioned are still far too vague. The day after Mr Johnson’s announcement, my parents and I received floods of emails from my school, with my teachers and head of year seemingly just as unsure as me.
But I do not believe that I could perform to the best of my ability were I to take my exams in the summer as originally planned, and it seems only fair to do whatever is needed to ensure the 2021 cohort avoids the failures of last year’s grading system. The thought of having to go through what they went through frightens me. I hope that between now and the summer, the Government puts solid structures in place to prevent such a disaster.
Of course, I recognise the fortunate position I find myself in. I am in the final months of my compulsory education and I won’t have to face what may be years of consequences due to a disruption unlike my brother.
Those who were arguing for schools to remain open often cite mental health and, again, I sympathise with their concerns – especially as a student who for years has relied on school to improve my mental health. Being able to socialise with peers always boosts my mood and as much as I love my family, seeing my friends allows me to be a teenager and let off steam.
However, schools are not a safe environment. The idea that I might have been unintentionally spreading the virus due to my attendance was affecting my mental health much more negatively than not being able to go at all.
Remote learning was hard during the first lockdown, I won’t deny that either. I got sent little work and would often spend my days scouring the internet for things to do. I felt let down, especially as friends attending other schools were apparently receiving more assignments than me, yet I was also sympathetic towards my school and teachers.
I understood how difficult the situation was – and I was safe. My family was safe. The first lockdown was sudden, but now, as more schools adapt to this new way of life, I am confident the support I will receive will be far better.
My school has already taken necessary steps – for instance, getting new software that runs more efficiently so that teachers can deliver lessons more smoothly.
Of course, my education is going to be affected by the pandemic. My university career hangs in the balance as it does for countless others, and I can’t imagine the long-term impact this will have on younger children and the strain on parents trying to deliver home-schooling yet again.
For closures to have as little negative impact as possible, schools and their students need clarity. When information does come, it is often at the last minute: look at the announcement of mass testing in schools, when teachers were only told a few days before the Christmas break and then given few details on how this is to be implemented.
As the National Education Union said on 15 December: ‘The NEU has been calling for wider testing for months but plans for the way to do this should have been thought through much earlier this term, and fully consulted on with the profession.’
Anxiety around how long this will go on is playing on my mind, as it likely is for many. I can only hope that the vaccine and Government lockdown measures allow for us to start leading normal lives again.
Schools must remain closed, however, or else pupils will likely be causing more cases and, ultimately, deaths – we already know that this mutant variant of the coronavirus spreads more quickly across all age groups.
This slogan may seem like a distant memory, but it feels more relevant than ever: Stay home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives.