Union calls government ‘negligent’ for no ‘plan B’ when schools reopen

"We want schools open but we want staff and students to be protected as well" says the National Education Union

As schools in England get ready to fully reopen next week for the first time since the coronavirus lockdown in March, unions have shared some interesting thoughts on how it has been handled.

The latest debate is around face masks and whether older children and teachers should be wearing them in schools. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said children over the age of 12 should wear face coverings in communal areas at school, while education secretary Gavin Williamson said schools will be able to use discretion when it comes to wearing masks.

The four chief medical officers in the UK have said it is safe for children to return to schools. Professor Chris Whitty said on Saturday that “the chances of children dying from Covid-19 are incredibly small” but missing school will damage children in the long run.

The National Education Union (NEU), which represents around 450,000 members also agrees that children should return to full time education but it argues that the government must have a plan if there is an outbreak.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “The NEU agrees with the Chief Medical officer about the benefits a return to full time education will have for children and young peoples education and well being.

“We believe that it is vital that the Government must take every step it can both to allow this wider re-opening and to keep the R rate below 1.”

The recent report by PHE England shows there were only a small number of outbreaks in schools after they partially reopened in June. Although the findings are flawed in some aspects as there wasn’t much data from secondary schools and in primary schools much smaller ‘bubbles’ were possible.

Courtney continued: “It is very important that such monitoring studies are maintained during the period of wider school opening. Schools and colleges are currently doing all they can to ensure their buildings are as COVID secure as possible, as well as dealing with the fallout from the exams fiasco.

“However school staff, parents and pupils are being sorely let down by Government because of a lack of a Plan B and of ensuring robust track trace and test is in place throughout the country. We believe the Government is negligent in the extreme.

“Schools and colleges need to know what should happen if an outbreak of the virus occurs in individual schools or more widely with either national, regional or local spikes. Government advice needs to cover the possible self-isolation of bubbles and, in extremis, moving to rotas or to more limited opening. It needs to cover advice to heads about the protections needed for staff in high risk categories if infection rates rise.

“Government should be employing more teachers and seeking extra teaching spaces to allow education to continue in a Covid secure manner if infections rise. This should include employment of student teachers who have finished their courses and not yet found jobs, as well as mobilisation of supply staff.”

Also commenting on whether children should wear masks, Mr Courtney said: “We have to stay abreast of the science, so when the World Health Organisation says that children over 12 should wear masks in communal areas at school, that ought to be listened to. The WHO also recommends that staff over 60 or otherwise vulnerable should be wearing a medical grade mask, and the Government should be looking at the science on that as well. It is vital we keep the R rate below 1.

“We want schools open but we want staff and students to be protected as well. As things currently stand in England, the NEU believes it should be permissible for staff members and students to wear face masks if they wish to do so. Many staff, parents and students will be anxious, and face masks will help to alleviate that anxiety.

“It will go some way towards ensuring there is confidence amongst parents that schools are safe places, so that in-person learning can recommence for all students, which is what we all want to see.”

Lucy Skoulding is a freelance reporter at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter.

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