Only Open Schools When It Is Safe

We have received this report from NEU, NAHT, GMB and UNISON. They have some views on the re-opening of schools which they would like to be known.

“The government has confirmed it will proceed with opening primary schools to children in nursery, reception, Year 1 and Year 6 on Monday 1st June, even though its own scientists have not modelled the proposal and average numbers of new daily cases are still high, and despite the ‘track and trace’ system not being properly in place.

Heads, teachers and support staff represented by the National Education Union (NEU), National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), GMB and UNISON in Brighton and Hove want schools to open more widely. We know how important schools are for children, and particularly for vulnerable children.  But it is not safe to open schools more widely on 1st June. Brighton and Hove Council has stated that schools should only re-open to more students when risk assessments indicate it is safe to do so and the unions fully support this position. We expect schools in Brighton and Hove to continue the service for children of key workers and those who are vulnerable, whilst managing distance learning for other children but to delay wider opening to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and protect the community.

Experts are clear and unequivocal about the dangers inherent in a 1st June wider school opening. Sir David King, of Independent Sage said last Friday: “It is clear from the evidence we have collected that 1 June is simply too early to go back, by going ahead with this dangerous decision, the government is further risking the health of our communities and the likelihood of a second spike.”

Professor Dame Angela Maclean, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Defence and a Professor of Mathematical Biology at Oxford, when answering a question about the Government’s wider opening proposal at a Downing St briefing, said loosening the lockdown was reliant on a strong system of test track trace being available throughout the country,  social distancing being maintained and the case count being reduced to manageable proportions to enable a test, trace and isolate function to work effectively. She emphasised that none of these essential conditions for a loosening of the lockdown was reliant upon a date.

We realise it is difficult to suggest that the Government may be wrong. But in Professor Maclean we have the Governments’ own scientific advisers stating that the safe opening of schools is conditional upon an effective and fully functioning test track trace and isolate system being fully implemented. In so doing she is agreeing with Independent SAGE.

As we write there are already suggestions that new tracing system launched yesterday is not fully ready amid reports of numerous ‘crashes’ so it seems impossible to imagine an efficient and effective system being up and running by June 1st that has been tested locally. The latest indication is that the app will not be operational until the end of June.

Unions believe that it is important that Local Authorities and academy trusts should look at what expert opinion says about the risks to pupils and families, staff and their families and to the wider community.

It is also important to note that this same expert opinion suggests that it might be safe to open on June 15th – just two weeks later. This advice suggests that risks to adults and children would have halved during that time and that risks to the community would be much lower.

Unions have made clear that we would work together with the Government for a phased wider opening from June 15th – dependent on widespread community testing and tracing and ministerial engagement with unions on questions of social distancing and protection of vulnerable staff. 

We would like to work with Local Authorities and academy trusts on a similar timescale so that risk assessments are consulted on and agreed with unions before schools open more widely

As trade unions, is it also important for us to say that the Government has not given us modelling of the risks to various categories of staff, including BAME staff, for example.

We want to work with Local Authorities and MATs on the issues around vulnerable staff in particular. But it is important to understand th at staff cannot be compelled to work in unsafe settings, whether that safety is about them individually, or for other people, and that there are strong, legal protections for staff who do refuse to work in such settings. 

We will support our members who feel that they must continue to work on the present patterns in order to stay safe.

We reiterate that we remain ready to work with Government and with Local Authorities and academy trusts.

We want schools to open more widely and children and young people to get back to a life of greater normality. But this can only happen if parents, the community, school staff and children feel safe and cared for.  

 Paul Shellard, Secretary of Brighton and Hove NEU said:

“Heads, teachers, support staff and school staff have all been working through this challenging time. Schools have been open and contact has been maintained with families and the children they teach. They have done so to support vulnerable children and children of key workers while their parents and carers keep the country going. This has been done bravely and willingly.
“School staff have many questions which should be answered. Why, when the rest of the country is still required to observe social distancing, is it safe for schools not to? Fifteen pupils to a class makes social distancing an impossibility in our small classrooms and in particular with very young children who will not understand the concept. Denmark, who the Government quite rightly praise for their approach to wider school opening has a limit of five children when outside and three when inside.”

Mark Turner GMB Branch Secretary said;

“It would be irresponsible at this stage for schools , governing bodies and the Local Authority to even consider opening schools more widely on 1st June. This should not happen until all measures have been put in place not only to protect children attending but equally importantly our members, the support staff often working closest with children before going back home in most cases to their own families and in some cases, vulnerable family members. The GMB will protect and support our members if any pressure is put upon them to carry out work where they do not feel safe so call upon the LA, school leaders and governing bodies not to hastily open schools and not without proper meaningful engagement with unions and staff”

Hildi Mitchell, Secretary of Brighton and Hove NAHT said:

“School leaders want children to be back in school, but we want this to be in the safest possible way for our pupils, our staff, and their families.  We need assurance that an effective test, track and trace system is in place locally, so that our school communities can begin to return without fear that they will unnecessarily be exposing their loved ones to this virus.  Until then, we will continue supporting the children of critical workers and our vulnerable children and providing support for distance learning for those pupils at home.”

Matt Webb, Schools Convenor of UNISON said:

“We need to get this right and we need to get this right the first time round. A poorly managed and rushed re-opening of schools has the potential to spread COVID-19 widely across the city very quickly. This is why unions came up with a sensible plan which we still stand by; we are being asked to take the word of Boris Johnson over that of the medical and scientific community and that simply isn’t going to happen. Nobody wants to see an increase in infection across our city and nobody wants a second lockdown this summer”.

There is obviously some strong feeling on this topic from the Unions, maybe from the public also.