Working In a Pandemic

I Didn’t Sign up to Die for Your Education

Surviving as a teacher in a school during a global pandemic

In a time where the message to most folks seems to be to ‘stay at home’ to keep people safe, I am allowed more bodies in my classroom than could view my covid-ridden corpse at my own funeral. Our collective school tolerance for coughing has moved to DEFCON-4: any kid so much as clears their throat, our blue-suited management team rush in like the secret service to spirit the kids away to one of our two lovely Covid-19 dungeons (yes, we really do have those).

We’ve entered a ludicrously high state of twitchy, leg-jiggling nervous readiness. It’s like living through the pre-credit sequence of a cheap medical drama: at some point, someone around you is going to be flattened by a pane of falling glass or squashed by a bus. You just can’t yet figure out who it will be, and you hope it is anyone but you.

Here’s what it’s really like to work in a school amid a global pandemic.

Early Promise

Things started promisingly in August. We returned back with the social distancing turned up to eleven and with local breweries turning out alcohol hand sanitizer on tap. Back then, virus levels were so low that you could be pretty well assured that no one in the school had it anyway.

Even so, a dear friend of mine lasted less than a week. Her bosses mocked her for being ‘too anxious’ or ‘too fearful of the virus.’ On leaving the building, she remarked to another colleague, ‘I didn’t sign up to die for these kids education.’ She has a point: expectations of coming back failed to marry with the reality of the situation we faced.

Contradictions and Paradoxes

You cannot enforce social distancing in a school with 100 staff and 1000 children. It simply doesn’t work in a job that depends on close proximity for relationship-building. Trying to make kids follow a one-way system to achieve social distancing is like trying to herd cats while wearing clothes made of meat, doused in catnip. It’s infuriating and pretty much impossible unless you stand in the middle of 1000 children and expose yourself to a hefty dose of potentially virus-laden child breath.

Even if kids can’t distance, it will be fine when they are actually inside classes, though, right? Alas, not really. Even with changes to timetables, we teach 4 different classes per day. That is around 120 different people you are exposed to every single day. Most staff don’t even have their own rooms, so you are potentially changing room four times a day, on top of all of this.

Even if that was tolerable, we are being told that for ‘safety through ventilation,’ we have to keep all windows open. If you have ever been to Scotland in November, you will appreciate how ludicrous this is. I have to choose between catching the Covid or freezing my you-know-what off.

In one school, I heard that teachers were ordered to turn off their contact-tracing apps as they were ‘not at risk’ because some of them were wearing masks. Another school threatened disciplinary action because a teacher happened to tweet a picture of thousands of pupils doing what they normally do and not socially distancing.

On many occasions, we have ‘jokingly’ said to each other: ‘I can’t work in these conditions!’ and that perhaps this is what teaching in North Korea is like, rather than in Scotland. Perhaps my colleague that walked out in August had the right idea.

‘Enhanced Protective Measures in Place’

When things started to go south in October, and we moved tighter restrictions, I sat excitedly by my desk, wondering what enhanced protections our government would provide. Plastic screens like you see at the store? Medical scrubs? Hazmat suits? Those UV tunnel things like you see in video games? Returning to work on Monday, my additional protections consisted of just one more box of tissues. Presumably, these were simply to mop up the tears of teachers who have been begging for more protections. Sadly, I think most teachers are going to need a much bigger box.

I’m still a little unclear about what protections we will now get in November, moving into the highest levels of restrictions. The tinfoil hat-wearing parental lobbyists are pushing for schools to be open no matter how many teachers and pupils get infected. They would, though; they think 5G towers cause Covid-19 and that the long-awaited vaccinations are simply a plot by the government to microchip everyone.

From my biased perspective, I can’t understand what is wrong with sending half or more of the kids home anyway. People keep banging on about how education is so important (don’t worry, I think so too), but surely people have a right to go to work and feel a little bit safe: or at least feel like they are not being taken for a ride? Moving to so-called ‘blended learning’ might give us half a chance to do our jobs and feel safe at the same time.

With one positive case last week, we sent home 72 kids. Soon parents will be expecting us to do double-work: teaching online and in the class simultaneously — greedy madness.

The Future and Funeral Prep

Moving forward, I fully expect that if the number of infected increases, someone in my school will die. This might sound dramatic and morbid, but this is the reality that many of us have come to accept. Schools are under pressure to stay open no matter the costs. Teaching unions have had lots of shouty rhetoric but remain toothless, and ultimately-I have bills to pay.

In a job with many great melt-your-cold-heart moments and which I generally love, never in my decade of teaching have things sucked so tremendously.

There are some small glimmers of hope: never have the people in my workplace ever expressed so much such solidarity and unity as they are right now. Like cold-war states rounding on a common foe, people have forgotten old petty rivalries and office politics and are busting their guts to keep things going for every single kid in these dire circumstances.

Never in my experience have so many individual people been motivated to step in for those absent, ill or unable to continue. The best part of being in school in these strange times is that most kids seem to love being back in school and are finally getting to see their friends again. I guess community and real-life ‘face time’ matters to Gen. Z after all.

In the genetic lottery of life, I do hope I have some freakish natural immunity and can survive this winter. See you all after the second wave.

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Scottish Teacher and MSc student at Edinburgh Uni. All about Whisky, Beer, Board Gaming and Dogs. Getting back into writing after a long thesis grind.

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