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Sheila Caffrey, NEU national executive member (personal capacity)

Last year’s government announcement of ‘Covid-secure’ schools, appeared to be based on the belief that the virus marched up to school gates and then slunk away again. Now it is running rampant and unchecked through many schools, causing unprecedented staff absence – a real issue for safety and workload.

Permanent and supply teaching staff, support, admin and site staff are all facing shortages, on top of an already existing teacher shortage and cuts to support staff. All aspects of school life are being hit: teaching in classes, site safety, lunches, play duties and support for pupils with Special Educational Needs.

The workload piled onto existing staff to cover for colleagues is increasing the burden on already snowed-under staff, leading to stress and burnout. What happens next? Further staff absences – but for longer. And growing statistics of education workers leaving their jobs because of the strain.

The Department for Education and the government were on to it straight away, releasing ‘helpful’ guidance during the Christmas break, suggesting classes be combined in halls with one teacher and 100s of students, and re-recruiting armies of retired teachers to cover! Both suggestions are so far from reality, it’d be laughable if it wasn’t so serious.

100 students and one member of staff teaching not only means that pupils aren’t properly taught, or those with additional needs are ignored, but the health and safety ramifications are clear. Little ventilation in an icy, draughty hall where humans are packed in like sardines will lead to germs and viruses being bounced around like a Mexican wave.

As for bringing back retired teachers… Many will have retired early due to the pressures and strain of the job – deciding it just wasn’t worth the impact on their own health and families. Others, due to age or medical background, will be more susceptible to the virus and therefore at greater risk of harm or becoming ill.

Safety measures

Socialist Party members working in education have fought in our unions since the beginning of the pandemic to raise what is needed, and for the unions nationally to back up school union groups taking action over unsafe workplaces.

We have raised the need for: ‘Nightingale’ schools and classrooms to ensure adequate space and social distancing; CO2 monitors and ventilation units for every classroom, with union-agreed policies of when classes need to be moved; adequate heating and ventilation in every room; testing and isolation procedures to be followed; buffer periods after holidays and rotas that include staggered learning if transmission rates get too high.

And, of course, action to tackle stress and high workloads. We need smaller classes, less paperwork, less monitoring from school leaders and Ofsted or Estyn.

All of these things need to be fought for to win a safe and healthy education system that students and staff deserve.