Dear Gavin Williamson, now we know your plans for Covid-safe classrooms ... er, um

I wonder if you’ve looked back at your car-crash interview on BBC Breakfast with Charlie Stayt this week? He put in front of you a scenario that may well face teachers going into the new term during the pandemic: a room in a school, with no windows. In that room, as Stayt reminded you, is a teacher and some pupils. You didn’t suggest this situation would not take place. I know why: over the years, schools have had to improvise for space with all sorts of alcoves, partitions and corners, dividing up rooms so that small-group teaching can take place. Sometimes these teaching spaces don’t have windows. There have been times when I’ve done writing workshops in such places. I know they exist. I think you do, too.

Once Stayt had put this image in front of you – a room with no windows, no ventilation, as he put it – he asked: what should that teacher do?

This is what you said: “Well, er, as you are well aware, er, we are doing a whole set of measures and, of course, that’s why the vaccination programme is a key reason –”

Charlie asked his question again, and seamlessly you pressed on: “As you’ll appreciate, you know, er, you know, we’re always looking at how we can improve the sort of security; the sort of, er, that sensible balance of towards getting children back into school and also to deal with the er, er, the whole sort of, er, global pandemic.”

Like thousands of others, I have a child who is returning to school. As I read this, I am asking myself, has Mr Williamson answered Charlie Stayt’s question? Has he reassured me that when my child goes into school, the secretary of state for education in England has issued guidelines for staff and students as to what to do to stay safe, in that room with no windows, no ventilation? As I transcribed what you said, I was concentrating very hard on your exact phrases to see if I could find in them any reason to be confident about your plans. I’ll run them by you: “a whole set of measures”, “the sort of security”, “the sensible balance”, “the whole sort of, er, global pandemic”.

I know that you and your colleague Nick Gibb, the minister for school standards, set great store by correct and precise use of language. In fact, you have in place tests to measure just how correct and precise children’s use of language is. Teachers are also assessed on how well they can teach this. I’m guessing both you and Gibb would want to give teachers and students good examples of how to produce this kind of language too. In its own way, those words, “the whole sort of, er, global pandemic” make up an “expanded noun phrase”, which your curriculum rates highly as a feature of good writing. However, though it’s one of these much praised constructions, in your response to Stayt about ventilation in classrooms in England, this expanded noun phrase is not helping me at all. It hasn’t put in front of me any reason why I, or my child, should feel confident he won’t be exposed to virus-spreading situations in school.

Airborne viruses do not discriminate according to age, gender, sex, or any other category. We breathe them out, we breathe them in. Someone with the virus, feeling sick or not sick, can send the virus into the air. Someone without the virus can breathe in that air. I can be just as worried that my own child might be in “that room”, as worrying whether he might breathe out the virus on someone who could become seriously ill, get long Covid or die.

Back to Stayt’s question. Instead of bumbling about with politico gobbledegook, how else might you have answered? Covid is no longer a surprise. There could have been – and still could be – an emergency programme for schools to improve ventilation. You could produce a set of clear guidelines on what kinds of spaces must not be used by more than one person at any given time. And you could produce one clear set of guidelines on masks. There are students being told to wear masks on buses to get to their school, where they then sit down in bus-like classrooms, and take off their masks. What’s the policy?

Then Stayt asked you: if there is no ventilation in “that room”, would there be a CO2 monitor? And you went off on another painful ramble about the “rollout”. That’s the rollout that hasn’t happened.

It won’t do, Mr Williamson. It’s chaotic and dangerous. Your evasive answers reveal that you and this government either don’t know what to do, or that you don’t want to do what needs to be done. To me it looks as if you folks think you can get away with the lethal “herd immunity” strategy again, hoping the vaccination take-up will help you avoid the monster death total we got in 2020. This time, it’s our children and their teachers you are experimenting with, in the face of the er, er, whole sort of, er, global pandemic.

Yours, Michael Rosen

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