Why British kids went back to school and American kids didn't

The unions were simply unable to leverage their large memberships for political effect. They are weak, and barely feature in England’s three-decade-long story of radical school reform. Opposition to reopening was also a particularly difficult stance to maintain. In August, Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, announced that “the chances of children dying from COVID-19 are incredibly small,” whereas school closure “damages children in the long run.” By the summer, this way of thinking had hardened into a consensus: The opposition Labour Party supported reopening.

No surprise, then, that teachers ultimately fell into line. In late August, TeacherTapp, a teacher pollster, found that 71 percent of teachers said they were looking forward to going back, a higher percentage than in previous summers.

Serge Cefai, the executive head teacher at St. Thomas, looked puzzled when I asked whether the unions had given him trouble. Not at all. “We told [staff] we’re going to follow guidelines and we do … We’ve spent a huge amount of money trying to make sure that staff feel safe when they come into school.”