Schools: union action needed for Covid safety

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Stephen Brown, Oxford Socialist Party and NEU member

As we head into a new year and a new term, teachers are just as unimpressed by the Department for Education’s performance as ever. This time last year, school staff were collectively using Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act to refuse to go into unsafe workplaces, and schools were being threatened with legal action for closing amid ever-increasing numbers of staff absences, only for the government to announce a second full lockdown just one day after the return in January.

As schools staggered towards Christmas this year, it all felt like groundhog day. There is incontrovertible evidence that schools are not safe. The Office for National Statistics has stated that, in November, teachers were 37% more likely to catch Covid than other workers.

Few teachers will be surprised by this or the fact that, around the same time, over 200,000 students were absent because of Covid. With Omicron said to be three times more transmissible than Delta, and siblings of infected pupils expected to continue to attend school, class teachers will continue to be exposed to a higher risk than most.

In what we have come to expect, the government’s intervention came a day or two before schools reopened, giving school leaders little time to implement changes. But, in effect, all it amounts to is face masks in secondary classrooms (something many schools have already implemented because of outbreaks), combining classes that have been affected by outbreaks (superspreader events waiting to happen), and 7,000 air filters for classrooms.

As many have pointed out, all classrooms in England could be kitted out with air purifiers to significantly reduce the spread of Covid, for the cost of half of a royal yacht. The 7,000 air filters promised amount to around one for every 40 classrooms, and are unlikely to be with us until February.

Meanwhile, the National Education Union (NEU) has highlighted the fact that the situation is likely to get worse through January. The headteachers’ union, NAHT, implored government ministers to do better. But it is now past the time for concerns and imploring. It is time for teaching unions to stand up for the health and safety of teachers who are placed in danger each day, in poorly ventilated rooms, full of potentially infected children, with only a paper face mask for protection.

The NEU has issued Covid safety guidance, including isolation for siblings of those with a positive test, staggered start times and CO2 monitoring. But the national union must be clear – if any school does not meet union guidelines, it will fully back local union members in the action needed to win.

Teachers up and down the country will face whatever comes in January with the same dedication they have shown throughout the pandemic. ‘Blended learning’ may well be the order of the day, with doors and windows open. The hope is that soon it will be this government, riddled as it is with incompetence, callousness and corruption, that will be out in the cold.