Effective testing and properly funded safety plan needed in schools
Unions must act now
Martin Powell-Davies, National Education Union member
The contradictory chaos at the heart of the government’s Covid policies has been brought into sharp focus by the sudden announcement that mass testing of secondary school students is going to be rushed out in parts of Essex, Kent and north east London.
There’s no question that regular mass testing of school students and staff is needed. It’s a demand that the National Education Union (NEU) raised as one of our ‘five tests’ for Covid-safety in schools back in May.
A few weeks ago, infection rates in the north of England were much higher than in the south. However, official statistics show that it’s now London where rates are rising fastest, particularly among school-age children.
Like some Tory ‘King Canute’, health secretary Matt Hancock hopes rushing out mobile testing units can stop the rising tide washing over London and the south east. But, once again, instead of a properly resourced plan, he’s resorting to half-baked measures.
The practicalities of making sure that schoolchildren in the targeted areas are all tested are far from straightforward. No doubt exhausted and overstretched school staff will again be expected to try and help bring some order to Tory chaos.
Testing this late in term also means that children testing positive will then have to self-isolate with their families over the Christmas period that the government has supposedly ‘saved’ from Covid restrictions.
Worse, government ministers still can’t bring themselves to admit to what is now surely blindingly obvious. If school-aged children are so widely infected, insisting that parents send them into classes of 30 – in badly ventilated classrooms – inevitably means that schools will be acting as a significant driver of wider community transmission.
Yet, while these mass tests are being announced, badly hit London boroughs are being ordered to withdraw their plans to manage the situation by finishing term with just remote learning (see below).
As parents and staff in the hard-hit north have understandably pointed out with anger, government failure to organise widespread mass testing in other regions has already left thousands of families vulnerable. Some of their children will have been returning home from school untested, probably without symptoms, but still infectious.
But government failure mustn’t be allowed to stoke regional divisions. Regular effective mass testing of children should be happening in every area.
The risk of transmission should also be kept down through a properly resourced plan for safer reduced class sizes, with some children being supported to learn from home on a rota basis where necessary – certainly in those areas with the highest infection rates. Parents and carers, who are left without childcare, should be paid in full if they have to remain at home as a result.
Of course, these demands aren’t new. Trade unions and parent campaigns have been calling for action to reduce infection risks in schools for months.
Instead of just pleading with ministers who refuse to listen, what’s needed is action to make sure they are forced to change policy. The NEU should follow the lead taken by the Scottish teaching union EIS in Glasgow, and prepare members for ballots for strike action where employers continue to refuse to act to protect health and safety.
Tories force Greenwich schools to open – but unions must stand firm
So the Tories have chosen to use the dictatorial powers enshrined in the Coronavirus Act to order Greenwich Council to keep schools open – presumably other London councils following similar routes will receive the same.
Greenwich Council has now backed down. But the council should have stuck to its guns. It was acting in the interests of public health – unlike the Tories.
Let’s see the Tories justify in court why it’s “necessary and proportionate” to force schools to stay open, just when London is going back into tier 3, and when Hancock has blamed the rising infection rate on school-age children!
The council hasn’t stood firm, but the unions must. If there is a serious and imminent danger from rising infection rates, then the unions should advise staff of their rights under Section 44 to refuse to work in unsafe workplaces.
If the Tories up the ante, then they have to be faced down.