As part of Redfield & Wilton Strategies’ research into the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on British education, we conducted a survey of schoolteachers and parents of school-aged children across England and Wales. In this piece, we look at their views on the reopening of schools following the current lockdown and the approach that both parents and teachers consider to be the safest.
At the moment, we find that two-thirds of parents of school-aged children report having children attending school remotely, while a further 15% of parents report having children not attending school at all. 26% of parents say they have a child (or children) attending school in person––a situation that is allowed for parents who are essential workers. As such, 4 in 5 parents say they have a child (or children) not attending school in person.
Even among those parents whose child (or children) is attending school in person, 30% say their child (or children) is receiving remote instruction at school.
Among teachers polled, 40% say they are currently teaching in person, while 52% say they are currently teaching remotely. 7% are not actively teaching at all.
Our research finds that 49% of teachers and 50% of parents in England say they support the suggested school reopening date of 8 March, whereas 30% of teachers and 26% of parents say they oppose.
Notably, parents whose children attend independent schools are far more likely to support the 8 March proposed reopening date (72% support) than parents whose children attend non-selective state schools (45% support) or selective state schools (49% support). Parents of children currently attending school are also more likely to support the reopening date (64%) than parents of children attending school remotely (47%) or not attending school at all (39%).
Likewise, teachers who are currently teaching in person (54%) are somewhat more likely than those currently teaching remotely (43%) or not at all (48%) to support the reopening date. Moreover, teachers who hold a middle or senior management role in their school are much more likely to support the 8 March reopening date (57% support) than those teachers who do not hold a management role (38% support).
67% of parents in England and Wales do not think schools should be allowed to reopen sooner than their respective Government’s scheduled re-opening dates, compared to 33% of parents who think that reopening should happen before.
Once again, parents whose children attend independent schools were more likely to err on the side of reopening sooner, with 46% of them saying, yes, schools should be allowed to reopen before 8 March, compared to only 26% of parents whose children attend non-selective state schools. Parents of children who are already currently attending school amid the lockdown are also more likely to say yes (44%) than those of children who are attending school remotely (30%) and those of children not attending school at all (23%).
Despite the difference in parental opinion across school types, there is not a major difference between parents who voted Conservative in 2019 (27% think schools should be allowed to reopen sooner) and those who voted for Labour (33% think they should be allowed).
Altogether, 46% of parents and 47% of teachers in England have confidence that schools will re-open on 8 March, as the Government currently intends.
A similarly low number of parents (40%) and teachers (49%) in England & Wales expressed confidence that schools, once re-opened, would stay open for the rest of the school year without further national closures.
Personal Fear of Catching Coronavirus
Among teachers who are currently not teaching in person, only 38% say they would feel safe returning to in-person teaching at this moment, whereas 54% say they would feel unsafe.
Overall, teachers do not appear to be more or less fearful of contracting coronavirus in non-school settings than the population as a whole. For example, at present, 34% of teachers say they feel unsafe when food shopping, compared to 37% of the British public as a whole. Similarly, 69% of both teachers and the general public would feel unsafe taking public transportation. Interestingly, a somewhat smaller proportion of teachers (63%) than the general public (72%) say they would currently feel unsafe eating or drinking indoors at a restaurant or pub. Nonetheless, these figures correspond to broadly similar proportions (two-thirds) who feel unsafe.
Ultimately, 52% of teachers, 56% of parents, and 53% of the general British public say they consider it a genuine possibility that they might get the virus and say they are actively scared of contracting it when they go outside, suggesting that the public debates on re-opening schools contain broadly congruent groups. Viewed as groups, parents and teachers are no more afraid of contracting the coronavirus than the general public.
A similar proportion of parents say they feel actively scared that their child (or children) might contract coronavirus whenever they go outside.
Likewise, four in five parents say they believe they or another member of their household would contract coronavirus if their child (or children) caught coronavirus.
However, somewhat fewer parents believe their children have the same risk perception when leaving the home.
Interestingly, more than half of parents say they would not feel safe sending their children to school at this moment, and they would also not feel safe if their child (or children) partook in a number of activities. It should be noted that our question specifies ‘at this moment’ even though some of these activities (such as sending their children to school) are not currently permitted by the Government.
In fact, only a fifth of parents say they currently allow their children to meet with other children indoors (an activity which is not always permitted under the current lockdown rules, other than in childcare bubbles).
Nevertheless, when asked specifically about whether they will send their child (or children) to school when schools reopen (8 March in England, 22 February in Wales—tentatively), 76% of parents said they will allow their child (or children) to attend school in person.
Perceived Extra Risk for Teachers
Our research finds that 53% of teachers think they are more likely to catch the virus than the general population. Notably, teachers employed at non-selective state schools are more likely to think they are at higher risk of catching the virus (59%) than teachers at independent schools (44%). Those currently teaching remotely (58%) or not at all (60%) are also more likely to think they are at higher risk than those currently teaching in person (47%). We also find that 56% of parents of school-aged children think that teachers are more likely to contract coronavirus than the general population.
When it comes to comparing teachers to other non-medical essential workers, we find that 37% of teachers think that they as teachers are more likely to contract coronavirus than other non-medical essential workers. On the other hand, a slight plurality of teachers (42%) says that they consider their risk to be at the same level as other non-medical essential workers. Parents show a relatively similar even split in their response to this question, with 36% saying teachers are “more likely” and 39% “as likely” to contract the virus than other non-medical essential workers.
Nearly half of our teachers polled believe they currently have coronavirus now or have had coronavirus in the past. Among those who believe such, half say they have tested positive on a coronavirus test. Similarly, a third of parents polled believe the same for themselves, of which 38% say they have tested positive on a test. It is important to note that teachers are tested more frequently for coronavirus than the general population, therefore increasing the likelihood of teachers answering that they have received a positive test result.
By comparison, our regular polling conducted in Great Britain on 8 February found that 21% of the general public believe they currently have coronavirus now or have had coronavirus in the past, but only 30% of those who responded in this way say they have actually tested positive on a coronavirus test.
23% of parents say they believe a child of theirs currently has coronavirus or has had coronavirus, of which 39% say their child has tested positive.
41% of parents report a child of theirs having had to self-isolate this year due to a close contact of theirs testing positive on a coronavirus test.
Likewise, half of teachers polled report having had to self-isolate at some point in the past year due to a close contact testing positive on a coronavirus test.
Vaccines for Teachers
The perception that teachers are at a higher risk of contracting the virus has translated into 76% of teachers and 75% of parents agreeing that teachers should be included in the next priority list for vaccination. A staggeringly slim 5% of teachers and 6% of parents oppose the prioritisation of teachers for vaccines.
At the time of our poll, 24% of teachers polled said they had received a coronavirus vaccine, compared to 22% of the general population and 19% of parents.
30% of teachers who have not received a coronavirus vaccine expected it to be possible for them to get a coronavirus vaccine within the next month.
With only half of parents and teachers supportive of the 8 March suggested reopening date for schools, the Government will face an uphill climb in the coming weeks convincing both parents and teachers yet again—as the Government had to do in September—that it will be safe for children to return to school on the planned date. Although teachers do not express heightened levels of concern about catching coronavirus in non-school settings, a majority of those currently teaching from home still feel unsafe returning to school, and parents agree that teachers should be given priority in the next stage of the UK’s vaccination campaign. Ultimately, it is possible that the pattern from September 2020 will repeat itself again, with there being large numbers initially fearful of the reopening of schools but ultimately feeling more comfortable once they actually reopen. With the UK’s vaccination campaign continuing at remarkable speed, it is very possible that at least teachers will find themselves increasingly less worried as the academic year resumes.
 Wales and England have different scheduled reopening dates (22 February for Wales; 8 March for England).