Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/1086/30756
No going back to unsafe schools
Socialist Party members in National Education Union
Johnson's announcement that he intends primary schools in England to reopen to early years, reception, year one and year six from the beginning of June, was met with disbelief and anger by school staff and parents alike.
The full 'plan to rebuild' released on 11 May shows the plans are even worse. Yes, it says the return can be 'phased' at first - but not for long. Just a few weeks later, they are aiming for "all primary school children to return to school before the summer for a month". That would mean full classes and full primary schools before the end of June!
A plan to open even for year six alone was hard enough to accept when infection rates are still so high. Medical research is clear that reopening schools now will lead to a 'second wave' of infections and deaths in school communities. The reckless rush towards a full return of primary schools in a few weeks shows a callous disregard for health and safety.
It will be impossible to stop transmission of the virus among young children, particularly in settings where education is so dependent on play and sharing of toys and equipment. It will be impossible to maintain any social distancing in full primary schools.
Parents will be bringing their children to and from school, further accelerating the transmission of the virus from children to adults and from one family to another.
Having got primary staff back, the plan is also for secondary schools to start soon afterwards, starting with years ten and twelve. Policing distancing of teenagers will be equally difficult.
If Johnson was seriously concerned about safety and the danger of a second Covid-19 'spike', he wouldn't even be contemplating such dangerous proposals. In reality, he is simply responding to the wishes of big business to make sure childcare is in place so their workforce can be called upon to generate their profits again.
If the Tories were serious about ending the lockdown safely, they would first make sure that the tests set by the National Education Union (NEU) and jointly by all the Trade Union Congress-affiliated school staff unions were met.
They set out what's needed to ensure safety in a school context - a low level of infections in the community, regular testing of staff, a "test, trace and isolate policy" fully up and running, clear protocols for isolation of adult and child contacts when positive tests are recorded, safeguards for vulnerable pupils and staff, PPE, cleaning, and all the other measures required to minimise the risk of transmission of the virus.
Safety reps should demand firm risk assessments drawn up on the basis of these key tests from any managers planning to implement Johnson's plan. Staff should refuse to go into school to work on any such preparations.
You don't need a detailed assessment to know that Johnson's plan is unsafe. It's absolutely clear that those tests cannot be met in the next few weeks. It's equally clear, therefore, that schools will not be safe environments for staff, children or parents. That's why the message to Johnson must be clear, swift and overwhelming - we're not going back!
Unions need to respond quickly and firmly to make sure Johnson has to back away from his unsafe plans. It's now clear that ministers have only been pretending to listen to union concerns, while all the time weighing up their chances of enforcing a return, riding roughshod over union opposition. They must not be allowed to succeed.
Correctly, the NEU press release in response to Johnson's statement immediately threatened that "if schools are reopened to blatant breaches of health and safety, we will strongly support our members who take steps to protect their pupils, their colleagues and their families".
But unions need to be clearer still - there is no 'if' here, Johnson's plan clearly represents such a blatant breach. All unions must fully back members who assert their rights under section 44 of the Employment Rights Act not to return to a dangerous workplace.
But time is short. Reps and officers must make sure urgent online meetings are organised with their members. They must explain the threat to their safety, their rights under the legislation, and discuss together how to jointly protect themselves.
At the same time, unions should be immediately asking reps to urgently check and update workplace membership records, in preparation for industrial action that may be needed at a later date to defend union members and staff health and safety collectively.
Unions must also oppose any ending of the furlough scheme, and organise support for agency workers and low-paid staff in hardship. No worker should be forced through poverty back into an unsafe workplace.
Parents should also organise together to defend their community safety too. Head teachers and employers should also be making clear that they cannot assess the risks in Johnson's proposed return as acceptable, and will be refusing to implement Johnson's wishes.
If Johnson realises that he faces the prospect of a mass refusal to go along with his reckless plan, he can be forced to backdown.
Safety must come before 'childminding' - which is all that Johnson is interested in. It is too early to start any phased return of schools. Instead, the necessary resources must first be found, both to put robust testing and tracing strategies and other safety requirements in place.
Until then, staff should continue to support children's education through rotas and distance learning, as schools have been doing from the start of the 'lockdown'.
The Socialist Party says:
- Reckless Johnson's proposals are unsafe for our staff, children and communities
- Trade union key tests can't possibly be met by 1 June
- Unions must fully back members' right to protect their own safety
- Let's all make clear, we're not going back to unsafe schools
Fighting school reopening in highest mortality rate borough
Niall Mulholland, vice chair, Newham Trade Union Council (personal capacity) and East London Socialist Party
With Newham in east London suffering the highest Covid-19 mortality rate in England and Wales, at 144.3 deaths per 100,000 people, there are widespread concerns among the borough's students, parents, teachers, and other school staff that schools and colleges will be prematurely reopened before they are safe.
In light of this, Louise Cuffaro, Newham's National Education Union (NEU) secretary, and a Socialist Party member, convened a Zoom meeting on 6 May to discuss the issue with local parents, councillors, the Labour MP for East Ham Stephen Timms, anti-academy campaigners, and Newham Trade Union Council members.
Louise outlined the 'five tests' that the NEU set for schools to reopen. The NEU states that the Covid-19 case count must be lower, and extensive arrangements must be ready for testing and contact tracing.
But are education workers in Newham confident this will be securely in place? The NEU says a national plan must be agreed for appropriate physical distancing and levels of social mixing. Will physical distancing be possible consistently in Newham's often overcrowded schools?
The NEU calls for comprehensive regular testing for children and staff to ensure schools and colleges do not become hot spots for Covid-19. So far, these tests and protocols have not been agreed to by the Tory government.
Louise pointed out that if teachers and staff are not assured, they can, under the Employment Rights Act 1996, refuse to return to work to a danger that they believe to be serious and imminent. The current coronavirus legislation states the virus poses just such a threat.
The meeting heard the shocking news that Newham council has not actually met since the coronavirus crisis, despite Newham being the epicentre of the pandemic. Nevertheless, the councillors present agreed to take the NEU's five tests to the Newham mayor's office, and to seek to persuade the Labour-run council to agree to support the union's approach.
As chair of the Parliament's Work and Pensions Select Committee, Stephen Timms MP asked for workplace reports and proposals he can bring to its next meeting.
As well as Louise's comments, and others' suggestions, I outlined Covid-19 related concerns from workplaces that have been brought to Newham Trade Union Council, including from reps from the University and College Union, the higher education lecturers' union. We await with interest the response of the select committee.
Workers and parents should decide when it is safe to go back!
Ron Reader, parent, North London Socialist Party
We are in the middle of a national crisis with Covid-19. We are parents of four and eight-year olds, and feel it is premature to consider reopening places of education.
Schools are busy and densely populated, and social distancing would undoubtedly be very difficult, if not problematic at best.
While schools would have policies in place to try and manage this, we believe it is unrealistic to expect social distancing to take place properly. How would mealtimes and going to the toilet be managed, for example?
Reopening schools early, before we have reached a lower rate of infection, and have adequate PPE and testing and tracing - meeting the five National Education Union (NEU) tests - puts children, teachers and their colleagues at risk.
We worry that this increases the risk of a second spike, and will increase cases of infection and deaths of Covid-19.
Children, we have been led to believe by the mainstream media, are at low risk of being seriously ill from Covid-19. However, they may be carriers of the illness.
Many children, including ours, have not been able to see their grandparents for almost two months. We believe being at school and then seeing grandparents (once allowed to) will put them at risk. Remember, grandparents are in the particularly vulnerable category.
We think we should decide when our children should go back to school.
We need a clearly defined outline of how schools will implement and manage social distancing, reassurances testing for teachers and children, how suspected cases will be managed, and then, after this, have the options of sending them in or not.
My wife and I would encourage parents to contact their school's union rep who will be able to offer support and guidance. Parents can offer help and support to the rep as well.
Workers and parents should decide how and when our children go back to school, under these unprecedented times, not the government.
I don't want to go back to school until its safe!
Bethany Morgan, school student
As a Year 9 school student I am, like most students and parents, scared. Questions and concerns are not being addressed by the government, and there is uncertainty about when parents are actually going to get free school meals.
I receive 'pupil premium' which means I should receive frequent money allocated for my meals, but this just isn't realistic. My mum has waited days at a time to receive vouchers from private company Edenred, which is being used by the Department for Education to deliver the scheme.
I never go hungry but there are families that do. Parents shouldn't have to sacrifice their meals so that their kids can eat. Edenred and the government have people's lives in their hands.
At school you get a large hot meal, pasta, sandwiches or wraps, and parents rely on this day-to-day. Many families on benefits already experience 'holiday hunger' during half terms and the summer. One of the ways to stop this is to nationalise the big companies like Edenred and run them under democratic control and workers' management so nobody goes hungry.
When I go back to school I want to know am I safe, or am I going to get coronavirus and pass it onto those who are vulnerable? How can you socially distance in busy corridors or busy school buses for those who don't have cars? Are teachers going to get PPE? Are we going to wear PPE? How are we going to get food in a busy cafeteria? Are we going to still have assemblies? How are you supposed to sit in a classroom? Are breaks banned? How are you supposed to socially distance at lunch?
The National Education Union's model motion is brilliant, and I highly recommend my mum's article (see 'Private firm causes weeks of delay to free school meal vouchers: bring it back in-house!' at socialistparty.org.uk).
Let's say no to going back to school until it is completely safe and nobody is at risk or terrified to go into their workplace. No rushing back, and fight for socialism!
In The Socialist 12 May 2020:
What we think
Spanish flu 1918
Lessons from history