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Teacher speaks out: Covid rising in schools

Since schools re-opened, virus levels are nine times higher among primary pupils and 50 times higher among secondary pupils. Before half term, attendance in state secondary schools was 86%, and lower still in areas where the R rate is high – more than 500,000 students absent, the majority self-isolating due to Covid.

It is abundantly clear that schools are not ‘Covid-secure’ and are fuelling the second wave of infections. I am a secondary school teacher, the atmosphere in schools is fear and anxiety.

The constantly shifting guidance, and rolling absences, make focusing on teaching and learning near impossible. Getting quick and reliable information on who has tested positive isn’t happening. Huge numbers of students are being sent home at short notice, often in the middle of a school day.

The advice from Public Health England is very weak. Students in the same classroom as someone with the virus told not to isolate, because they sit over two metres away on the seating plan. This makes a mockery of the idea of ‘bubbles’.

My most vivid memory last term was a student being led from my classroom in tears after he was found to have a high temperature. “I’ve got it, I’ve got it”, he sobbed.

The current situation is not sustainable. The insistence of both Boris Johnson and Labour leader Keir Starmer that schools must remain fully open is shameful.

The National Education Union (NEU) call for schools to close during the upcoming lockdown, and then to re-open on a rota basis, is correct. Now is the time for the union to organise to force the government to listen to our demands.

A secondary school teacher in Yorkshire

School worker speaks out: Now is time to deliver

One after another, scientists and experts name school reopening in explaining how we got here to a second peak. Yet we’re apparently staying fully open.

Schools have already drawn up fully planned out, detailed and comprehensive plans for remote learning.

If the debate is about providing education, then surely this is the time to deliver on promises of broadband access and laptops, and a return to school for children of key workers and vulnerable pupils. Enable us to be a vital part of breaking the infection chain.

Vicky Perrin, Calderdale Unison lead school steward (personal capacity)

Uni teacher speaks out: Impossible situation we should never have been in

The decision to keep universities open during the new lockdown is inconsistent and confusing, like much of the government’s strategy. We are told: “Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives.”

But many staff commuted across regional boundaries, often on public transport, to deliver teaching that they could have done from home. So much for ‘if you can work at home, you should’.

Unlike the spring lockdown, where the majority of students returned to their family homes, university students will be spending lockdown in cell-like conditions, spending most of their time in the same room. There is real concern for student mental health and wellbeing if they don’t have some in-person contact.

Students could be forced into these conditions much longer, including over Christmas. Teaching staff are conflicted – torn between concern for student wellbeing, their own health and safety, and containing the virus.

We should have never been in this position. Sage advised the government at the start of September to delay bringing students back to halls and onto campus.

The government and university management have failed. They can’t be trusted to provide the resources needed. Staff and students must unite and fight for what we need.

Bea Gardner, Southampton University and College Union (UCU) executive, personal capacity

Schools: Time to ballot for union-wide strike action

Kevin Courtney, National Education Union (NEU) general secretary, rightly asked: how can a national ‘lockdown’ be effective if it doesn’t include schools?

Staff and parents are signing petitions and emailing in their thousands to demand Boris Johnson thinks again. But to change his mind, we need to go further and ballot for strike action.

Socialist Party members in education (spined.co.uk) have written this motion. Put it to your school or district meeting.

We agree that:

  • The government is putting the health of school staff and school communities in danger by insisting that schools remain fully open, despite infection rates rising so quickly that ministers themselves have decided that a ‘lockdown’ is needed
  • The government is ignoring clear scientific evidence showing both the effect that school closures would have on reducing the ‘R’ number, and the role of young people in spreading Covid-19, particularly in poorly ventilated indoor spaces with a high concentration of individuals, such as classrooms

The union has been right to demand that:

  • For a lockdown to be truly effective, it must include schools
  • During such a lockdown, schools should again return to teaching only priority and vulnerable pupils as was done in the ‘first wave’ of the virus
  • To minimise ongoing safety risks, when schools are open more widely, they should operate on a rota basis instead of with full classes
  • We encourage our members to support the union’s campaign to call on politicians, employers and school leaders to endorse and implement these demands.
  • In order to make clear to the government that we are no longer prepared to see our legitimate demands ignored – and to protect the health and safety of our members and our communities – the union must ballot for industrial action
  • We call on the NEU executive to call an emergency meeting to resolve that the union launches a union-wide ballot, disaggregated by employer, to allow those branches where there is the necessary support to take coordinated strike action, and action short of strike action

Industrial action should be taken to insist that, until such a time when the union believes conditions are safe:

  • Schools are included in future lockdowns and circuit breakers
  • Schools otherwise operate on an agreed rota basis, instead of with full classes
  • All staff in higher risk groups can work from home
  • Schools operate according to agreed and regularly updated risk assessments
  • School staff should be regularly tested as part of improved test-and-trace arrangements, including full isolation of ‘bubbles’, to combat school outbreaks.
  • School staff, who will be working hard to support learning at home and in school, are protected against unreasonable workload demands – classroom observations, Ofsted inspections and other unnecessary supervision to cease during the pandemic;
  • Government provides funding for additional resources, spaces and staffing cover, as well as full pay for parents and carers who are unable to work owing to childcare
  • Assessment arrangements for 2021 are adjusted in line with union demands.