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Louise Cuffaro, Newham National Education Union branch secretary and teacher (personal capacity)

After six months the Tory government has still not been able to provide an efficient and smooth-running test, track, trace and isolation system for Covid-19 cases in all localities.

This underpins the lack of confidence, and real fears that education staff, their unions and parents have for a safe return to state schools in September.

As a result of this government’s unwillingness to take the necessary precautions early enough to tell people to stay at home, many areas of deprivation such as Newham in east London were massively hit, disproportionately affecting the BAME community.

In Newham there have been promises of a soon-to-be-trialled track and trace mobile phone app. Despite this, in Newham and elsewhere, education unions must lead the call for track and trace to be brought into the hands of the local authority and public health bodies so that regular testing is available for school staff and pupils.

Tracking and tracing should be carried out by local staff door-to-door who know the area and communities they serve.

And all school staff who are employed by catering and cleaning companies, without sick pay and so on, must be brought in-house to ensure they can isolate with full pay as necessary.

Since education minister Gavin Williamson’s declaration in July, that all staff and students (primary and secondary) will return in September, government spokespersons and the media have repeatedly stated that children don’t catch the virus, transmit the virus and don’t carry the same load of virus as adults!

However, scientific reports show that while children can be asymptomatic, or only mildly infected, they can transmit the virus, and over-eleven-year-olds carry similar loads as adults.

Also, schools are not just full of pupils – they are full of teachers, support staff, administration staff, cleaners, caretakers, catering staff, visiting social workers, educational psychologists and other specialists meeting the needs of various pupils.

In fact, schools provide the very conditions in which transmission of Covid-19 can rapidly spread in large groups of people in enclosed spaces, in forced close proximity for long periods of time! Not to mention that all those adults and pupils then return home to their families.

From March until June teachers and support staff continued to work in schools on a rota to look after vulnerable and keyworker children in small groups.

Then in June, with promises of a world-leading track and trace system to be up and running within a month, Boris Johnson announced three and four year groups would return to school in June.

The majority of primary and secondary pupils continued to be at home, and school staff continued to provide work on the schools’ websites and/or in packages sent home to pupils.

Education staff never stopped working, the schools never closed and the ‘world-class’ track and trace system never materialised from the private companies who made millions out of the contract.

School outbreaks

During those last few weeks of the summer term there were no large outbreaks in the primary schools but this was because the National Education Union reps and members, despite the lack of track and trace system, ensured they rigorously questioned and checked their schools’ risk assessments.

They insisted on the rights of vulnerable staff (those with underlying medical conditions, BAME staff and those shielding others) to be able to continue to work from home; they fought for PPE where close contact personal interventions would be necessary with very young children; and they lobbied for year groups to return gradually, over a period of weeks, in small groups or bubbles of 10-15 pupils, with one or two adults who stayed in the same classroom at all times.

This enabled socially distanced seating, meals in their classrooms and playtimes outside staggered so that bubbles did not mix.

The importance of social distancing was paramount as, generally speaking, adults in schools were not provided or encouraged to wear masks.

However, in September social distancing as a measure to mitigate against the spread of Covid-19 in schools will simply not be possible to guarantee if we follow the government dictat.

Bubbles will increase in size to include all classes in a year group. In a four-form entry primary school of 30 pupils per class, this means bubbles of 120 pupils.

In secondary schools, a year group bubble could be as many as, or more than, 300 pupils, plus all the adults they come into contact with in different lessons and break times! There is nowhere else in society where that number of people would be allowed to come together and interact at mealtimes with no PPE and guaranteed space to social distance.

The concerns expressed by Johnson, and backed up by Labour leader Keir Starmer, over the priority for children to be back in school ‘for the sake of their education and to bridge the gap of inequality’, ring even more hollow and hypocritical in the wake of the downgrading of state school pupils’ A-level results, while private schools results have been largely upgraded!

The virus has not gone. It is the same virus that has killed approximately 50,000 in the UK and possibly more.

We have no vaccine, and the government should be planning for ongoing local closures of schools for the foreseeable future in the event of positive Covid cases in schools.

That means providing laptops and WiFi to all pupils, and prioritising funding to local authorities to ensure local track and trace systems are fully functioning and fit for local purposes.

So once again the National Education Union and other education unions must lead the call for safety first in schools for September.

A more gradual return of year groups and smaller classes, which will allow social distancing and more attention per pupil (as at Eton and Harrow).

As a matter of urgency, many National Education Union districts and branches, reps and members across the UK will be holding a day of action on Friday 21 August to highlight the union’s demands and the urgent need to unite and fight for a fully funded and resourced state education system which is safe, and works for working-class young people.

Schools are not safe, photo Todd Cromer/CC

Schools are not safe, photo Todd Cromer/CC   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Worried parents stuck between a rock and a hard place

Lindsey Morgan, Leicester Socialist Party and Leicester Safety First

Boris Johnson has argued that it is ‘our moral duty’ to ensure all pupils go back to school in September.

The irony of Boris talking about morals after the anxiety his government has caused A-level and GCSE students, working-class youth generally, and the monumental amount of stress the Tories have caused through austerity, is overwhelming.

Nevertheless, since the start of May, a parent group called ‘Safety First: parents, carers, students and school staff together’ has been fighting a broad campaign, fighting for school safety in Leicester and the surrounding county supporting the National Education Union locally.

Our parent-led campaign has petitioned the local authority; aired our concerns on BBC Radio Leicester; written letters to the city mayor (who dismissed our concerns); organised a protest for 21 August as part of a national day of action; advised education workers of their legal rights, and much more, to fight for the safety of education workers, students, and the wider community.

Incredibly difficult

Lockdown has been incredibly difficult for swathes of working-class parents who have had to try and balance work with home educating, or by trying to get hold of overpriced childcare, or even trying to manage their own mental health and the worries of their children.

Many will feel that they have no other choice but to send their children back or face unemployment and the stress that goes with that.

There are also many parents who have had to shield (or their children have) who are now expected to send them back in just two weeks’ time under the threat of fines and potential imprisonment.

The current plan of the government, and Labour, is for all of these students to be forced back into full-time school before it is safe.

A building body of research has shown that teenage children transmit the virus as well as adults and that the virus isn’t only spread through surfaces but breath.

We still do not have a vaccine. Combine this with poorly ventilated classrooms, no PPE for teachers and students, no social distancing and the general cramped conditions of many schools, and it is a potential disaster.

Parents who are worried about this are finding their voice. By linking parent campaigns with not only the education unions but also the wider trade union movement we can make sure it really is safety first before the schools open.

As a single mum, who doesn’t have the option of sharing childcare, it is an incredibly stressful situation.

And many, many parents are feeling this too. My daughter is due to go into year ten and wants to get on with her GCSEs but is also worried about her health, my health, and the health of her teachers.

The Socialist Party in Education has drew up a set of demands (see opposite) which mitigate the risk and develop the National Education Union’s five tests.

This includes a demand for students to go in on a rota basis to enable blended learning. By reducing class sizes you lessen the risk for all in the school environment, but also enable shielders to not take risks to their lives, and parents who need to work can.

They have also asked for face masks to be used by over-elevens with a transparent panel to enable lip-reading.

These should be provided for workers and students. Physical resources, including books, IT resources, and so on, should also be provided.

Of course, the government would definitely agree to this; being as they care so much for vulnerable children!

The atrocious threat of fines should also be removed. If this isn’t done at government level, heads (who can authorise absences), should look to their colleagues for support in not implementing fines, and take local authorities on.

The Labour council in Leicester, just as it doesn’t resist cuts, also refuses to resist the government on fines, despite the city being recently forced into local lockdown and a still too-high infection rate. It was able to resist the Tories when it came to getting businesses open though!

Over a decade of austerity, plus the Covid crisis, has made many working-class parents ill. While our children are unlikely to get seriously ill, we have a wide range of illnesses linked to poverty and malnutrition, and full-time full return increases our chances of catching Covid; a virus which disproportionately kills us, the working class.

The U-turn over A-level and GCSE results has shown to a huge layer of young people that protest works.

By uniting these youth with parents and unions fighting for school safety, we can land another blow on this awful government.

But we shouldn’t stop there. We need to fight for a socialist education system where no-one’s postcode can work against them; the socialist transformation of society where the workers themselves have control over their health and safety, and an end to this inept government.

Socialist Party in Education demands:

Smaller class sizes to allow adequate physical distancing

Schools should reopen at the start of term with no classes larger than 15 school students.

Wider opening should only be considered when the evidence of the effects of school opening on infection rates confirms that it is safe to do so.

Full consultation with parents and unions over rotas – no fines, protect those most at risk

Arrangements for home learning to be produced in consultation with parents and carers to meet priority needs as much as possible.

Books and IT resources must be made available to those who need them. There must be no fines on those who opt for their children to learn at home.

Agreement with unions must guarantee that those staff who are, or who live with others at greater risk, can fulfil their duties by working from home.

Face coverings

Schools can’t be treated differently from other indoor environments. Staff and school students over the age of eleven should wear face coverings while indoors. Staff should be given transparent coverings if needed for facial expression.

Safety first when there are local outbreaks

Where a case is identified within a school, staff and students within that ‘bubble’ must be closed to allow self-isolation; where there are two or more cases within 14 days, then the whole school will close.

Where local infection rates exceed the internationally recognised threshold of 50 new cases per 100,000 over seven days, schools should close to all but priority children.

Community test and trace systems that work, full pay if you need to isolate

We need a reliable community-based testing and tracing system, run through local council, NHS and GP services, not private profiteers.

All who have to isolate should be supported on full pay.

Weekly onsite testing of staff to be provided, and for children whose parents request it too.

But this government will not listen unless forced to do so.

That’s why parents and staff must demand they support and fund schools to open safely.

We call on school unions to use their collective strength to:

  • Prepare for a national strike ballot to allow action to be taken if safety remains at risk.
  • Support members acting together to assert their legal rights not to work in an unsafe workplace under Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, which provides for the protection of workers if they decide not to work in an unsafe environment.