Safe phased return based on infection rates not politicians’ dates
Martin Powell-Davies, Socialist Party in education (SPinED)
Boris Johnson has announced his ‘road map’ to ease lockdown, including a timetable for full reopening of schools in England on 8 March. The youngest primary school pupils in Wales began returning in full on 22 February.
Education unions must be ready to respond with collective action to any reckless proposal which puts the government’s short-term economic interests ahead of the long-term safety of our schools and communities.
In a welcome move, nine education unions and governance organisations issued a statement warning that a full return of all pupils would be “reckless”, bringing “nearly ten million pupils and staff into circulation in England, close to one fifth of the population… It could trigger another spike in Covid infections, prolong the disruption of education, and risk throwing away the hard-won progress made in suppressing the virus over the course of the latest lockdown.”
Even during lockdown, schools have still been open to vulnerable pupils and children of key workers. Nobody wants to stop schools opening fully for longer than is necessary. Online learning, if set to the demands of an unchanged curriculum, puts pressure on staff, students, parents and carers.
However, as the joint statement says: “It would be counterproductive if there is a danger of causing another surge in the virus, and the potential for a further period of lockdown. Wider opening must be safe and sustainable.”
The warning is correct but, sadly, it will take more than joint statements to make ministers think again. It was the action of tens of thousands of education staff asserting their individual rights under ‘Section 44’ – not to attend an unsafe workplace – that forced Johnson to back down in January. Education unions now need to have the courage to advise members of their rights once again.
But education unions, and especially the National Education Union (NEU), need to go further. We must prepare members to use their collective strength, including through balloting for industrial action, to resist any unsafe return, based on clear and specific demands about what constitutes a safe wider opening.
Our demands can be objectively based on the advice of experts, like Independent Sage, who have analysed the latest scientific evidence and the government’s own data. For example, they have pointed out that infection rates fell least in January among primary-aged children – precisely those settings where attendance has remained high. This is yet another indication of the role schools can play in community transmission.
What are we demanding?
Socialist Party members in the NEU are helping to draft a motion to be debated at the union’s executive on 24 February, based on the demands below.
The NEU calls on all employers to abide by their responsibilities to ensure the health, safety and welfare of all employees and other persons affected by employers’ actions, through:
- No school opens more widely unless ‘R’ is less than one, and the local infection rate is below 100 per 100,000 confirmed cases a week
- No school opens with more than 50% class sizes until the rate is below 50 per 100,000 confirmed cases a week
- The wearing of masks by school students in primary, secondary and post-16 classes
- Staff who are assessed to be at higher risk of severe illness, or who live with people at high risk, being able to support teaching and learning from home.
- Measures in place to protect the welfare of students, through a focus on a recovery curriculum that recognises the impact of the pandemic on mental health, and the welfare of staff through ensuring reasonable workload
- Clear agreed risk assessments that ensure acceptable measures are in place in every workplace, particularly early years, special educational needs and disability and other settings, where students may not be able to securely follow social distancing and other mitigation measures
Where employers fail to meet these necessary steps, the national union will:
- Advise the use of Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, where members face a serious and imminent danger to their health and safety.
- Support industrial action ballots at school, district and regional level to secure these steps