In the autumn of 1918, the city of San Francisco reacted quickly and decisively to the flu epidemic by shutting down the city and enforcing the use of face masks in public. As infection rates dwindled in November, officials not only eased restrictions but held a public parade to celebrate the end of the First World War. By the spring, the city had over 45,000 cases of influenza, and over 3,000 deaths - one of the highest mortality rates in the US.
Over a century later, we now face a similar tipping point. As countries like South Korea and New Zealand begin to return to some semblance of normalcy, many in the UK are eager to return to their old lives - including sending their children back to school. Despite the fact that the UK now has the highest death toll in Europe, our government is already aiming to reopen schools as early as June 1, despite well-founded warnings from teaching unions across the country, as well as the Scottish parliament.
The COVID-19 epidemic has destabilised our way of living like no other event in history, and it is understandable to want to return to normal as soon as possible. But a stiff upper lip will not protect us from a second wave.
An endeavour of this size cannot be taken lightly, and there are simply too logistical questions that have yet to be satisfactorily answered. Current research suggests that children are less vulnerable to the coronavirus, but this does not make them immune. How are teachers expected to maintain social distancing in a classroom setting? Will classes, or even year groups be reintroduced in phases? What measures are being put in place to help pupils with underlying conditions that might make them particularly vulnerable?
Nor will the effects of reopening schools be confined to the school premises. If other workplaces slowly reopen and limited social gatherings are allowed, teachers will inevitably be the weak link in any chain of people. Are all staff members expected to return to work en masse, posing yet another infection risk to their families, colleagues and pupils?
It seems especially unwise to force schools to reopen as early as June 1, given that they will close again just six weeks later for the summer holidays. It is unrealistic to expect pupils to readjust to the rhythms of school work in so short a time, so many teachers will choose to spend the time creating a fun environment for their pupils - but this hardly justifies the risk to teachers or their charges.
Compared to other nations, the UK’s approach to this virus has been gung-ho at best, and our efforts to move on from it must be more measured. As it stands, there seems to be no way to reopen schools without putting an unacceptable number of people at significant risk. The return to schools should be paused until it is more certain than not that a safe working environment can be provided for pupils, teachers and parents alike. In the words of Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, "Anything else would be a dereliction of duty from the Government."