Martin Powell-Davies, Candidate for NEU deputy general secretary and Socialist Party member
Staff, school students, and their families understandably want the new academic year to be a return to ‘normality’, without the stress and disruption of the last eighteen months. But the transmissibility of the Delta variant, and the failure of government to invest, means that won’t be the case. Just as in September 2020, we are returning to the same poorly ventilated, closely packed classrooms operating non-stop throughout the day – prime conditions for spreading an airborne virus.
News from Scotland, where term started earlier, has confirmed that the reopening of schools after the summer break will inevitably drive up infection rates. In July, Independent SAGE linked a decline in Scottish infection rates to the earlier start to their school holidays. But now, young people are mixing in schools again, fuelling record case numbers. Tellingly, around a third of the new cases have been in the under-19s age group.
Vaccinations have helped ensure that hospitalisation and death rates are much lower than they would have otherwise been. But protection is not guaranteed. A proportion of our diverse population will still suffer serious illness, and more again from long Covid – especially those who have existing conditions that leave them at greater risk. Schools have a responsibility to keep our communities safe.
In July, the National Education Union (NEU) issued a Covid-19 update, assuring members and school leaders that new advice would be published before the start of the autumn term. Union reps were also advised to remind school management that risk assessments will need to be revised in time for the new academic year. But members had to wait until the end of August, only a few days before the start of term for the majority of schools and colleges, to read the union’s published guidance.
The guidance states: “We are extremely concerned that the ‘indicative’ thresholds for numbers of infection set by DfE in its contingency framework are too high and risk leading to the further spread of the virus”. The document’s stated purpose is to “help union reps to understand the current Government and DfE guidance”. But it does not explain the necessity to challenge government guidance where it is inadequate.
For example, it only asks secondary settings to “urgently consider the case” for continuing to require face coverings to be worn in classrooms, rather than make clear unions are insisting that is the case, in line with rules when schools returned in Scotland. Nor does it insist that students who live with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19 be told to self-isolate, simply asking that the education setting is informed.
The union safety checklist has been issued together with three other trade unions representing education workers: GMB, Unison and Unite. It advises workplace reps to have regular meetings with management to carry out risk-assessments and regularly review safety. This is absolutely necessary. But if agreement isn’t reached and workplaces remain unsafe, then what?
The collective strength of members across the school unions must be drawn upon to keep workers, students and communities safe. A glimpse of that potential strength was shown in January when school workers simultaneously used Section 44 of the Employment Act to refuse to attend their unsafe workplaces.