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Ending lockdowns by reopening schools first? The potential implications for teachers’ health and well-being

By IOE Editor, on 15 April 2020

By Dr. Asma Benhenda

Many policymakers around the world are grappling with the inextricable dilemmas of lockdowns, and how and when to end them.

As several European countries are announcing their plans to ease lockdowns, some choose to reopen schools first.  Denmark and the German region of Saxony, for example, have announced that schools will reopen as early as this week.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron announced yesterday that schools will gradually start to open from the 11th of May.  While he did not give any details yet about the precise arrangements, it has already sparked a backlash from teachers, who feel the government is putting them at risk.  Teacher unions say that “teachers do not want to be the victims of a second wave by being on the front line with children all day who can be carriers”.

We are in completely unchartered territories and it is definitely too early to know whether ending lockdowns by opening schools first is the right decision. However, we can already try to think about the potential implications of this decision on teachers’ health and well-being. Knowing these potential implications ahead of time can help policymakers address them more efficiently.  In this blog post, I will try to think about this question in the context of France, which is among the first countries to announce school reopening. It can help other countries, such as the UK for example, which seems to be at a different point of the epidemiological curve, learn from it.

The underlying physical health of teachers

The first important point to consider is the underlying physical health of teachers. Teaching is fundamentally based on social interactions, and physical distancing is likely to be very challenging to implement in schools. While I am not aware of French statistics on the physical health of teachers, general demographic data can give us a broad, though a little bit speculative, picture.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Education, there are more than 900,000 teachers in France. More than 70 % of them are women against around 48 % in the total active French population. The average age is 43 years old, which slightly more than the average active population (around 40 years old).   Around 30 % of teachers are above 50 years old, which is more than in the average working age population (around 20 %).

Overall, the existing data on COVID-19 suggests that men are more likely than women to become critically ill from the virus (even if it is not clear yet why). It also appears rather clearly that age is a major risk factor.  According to a recent study published in the Lancet, the case fatality ratio is 0.14 % for people aged 30-39 years old, against more than 1.2 % for those aged 50-59 years old, and 3.9 % for those aged 60-69 years old. This is rather worrying for teachers as they seem to be slightly older than the general active population.  The situation might be slightly different in England as there is some evidence than the age profile of teachers has changed in important ways since the early 2010s.  According to a 2018 NFER report, the proportion of teachers older than 50 has decreased from 23 % to 17 % in 2016, while the proportion of teachers aged less than 40 years old has increased since 2010.  Furthermore, teachers have a younger age profile than nurses or police officers, two other large public sector professions in England. For example, about a third of the nursing workforce is age 50 or older.

Another major health risk factor is underlying conditions.  According to US hospital data, 78 % of people put into intensive care have underlying conditions.  While I am not aware of statistics on underlying health conditions for teachers in France nor the UK, a few years ago, the French Ministry of Labour ran a declarative survey on civil servants (which includes teachers) and alarmingly found that teachers – and more specifically primary schools – are much more likely to say they suffer from underlying conditions than other civil servants with comparable levels of education.

Potential Impact on Teacher Well-being

Another important factor to consider is the potential impact of the feeling of “being put on the front line” on teacher mental health.  Teachers already feel that they are not valued by society. According to the 2018 OECD TALIS survey, on average, only 26% of teachers in OECD countries think that the work they do is valued by society. According to this survey, this issue is particularly severe in France where only 5 % of teachers feel valued, against around 40% in England.

Anecdotal evidence suggests teachers might feel even more “frustrated, angry and anxious” at what they feel is a lack of concern for their wellbeing.

Furthermore, it is likely that many teachers already feel overwhelmed by the transition to online learning. Major readjustments will likely need to be made to safely reopen schools and this is likely to significantly increase teacher stress and workload. Teacher burnout and workload is already a major issue in many developed countries, especially in England, where teachers work far longer hours than their international counterparts.

This potential impact on teacher well-being needs to be taken seriously because it can have long term negative consequences on their health, and more broadly on the attractiveness of the teaching profession.

Conclusion:  teacher health and well-being is an important point to consider when reopening schools

We are in an unprecedented situation and it is definitely too early to say anything definitive about whether opening schools first is the right decision. However, this decision is likely to have significant implications, potentially in the long run, on the physical and mental health of the teaching workforce and more generally on the attractiveness of the teaching profession.

A quick analysis of demographic and declarative survey data in France seems to suggest that teachers are slightly older than the general active population and also seem to be more likely to have underlying conditions than other workers with comparable levels of education.  The age profile of teachers in England seems younger, even if a significant share of the workforce is over 50.  As physical distancing can be very challenging to implement in schools, this is an important point to consider. Furthermore, opening schools first can reinforce teachers’ feeling that they are not valued by society. It can also have a significant impact on their workload, which is an important question given that, teachers, even before the pandemic, were at significant risk of burnout.   It is important that policymakers are aware of these points to have a chance to mitigate them efficiently ahead of time.

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