The debate about schools re-opening has intensified in the last week. It is clear that the government and their closest media friends have decided to ramp up the pressure to open. On April 30th Johnson let it be known that he would make a major announcement the following week on government plans to lift the lockdown and that this would include a plan for schools. Three days later, on May 3rd, the Sunday Telegraph led with a story that primary schools would reopen on June 1st to Y6 pupils. This would be part of a phased return with Y10 and Y12 pupils in secondary schools next.
It is important to note that none of this appears to be based on scientific or medical evidence which suggest that the Covid-19 virus is under control or that schools are significantly safer than other workplaces or mass gatherings. Instead the push to fully re-open schools is driven by the need to free more parents up to return to work so that business can return to some sort of normal. The only shred of science in the debate about schools is the largely irrelevant observation that young people are less likely to suffer serious effects from the virus.
The NEU response to this increasing pressure was to release, on May 1st, a set of five tests which should be met before any return to schools is possible or acceptable. These are that there are:
• A much lower number of cases with a sustained downward trend and testing and tracing in place
• A national plan for social distancing
• Comprehensive regular testing for children and staff
• Whole school strategies with protocols in place in the event of any case of Covid-19
• Protection for the vulnerable and those who live with the vulnerable, in particular continued shielding.
There is no evidence that it is yet safe to return more children and staff to schools or that it is likely to be so in 3-4 weeks. School workers and our unions have a dilemma. To set out conditions for a return means we are entering into a conversation that could make an early unlock more likely. To abstain from that discussion on principle, however, leaves school workers with no voice and no protection. The NEU is right to intervene and seek to make these tests a condition of any return.
The slogan, no return until it is safe is a popular and useful way to sum up a pro-worker and pro-pupil position. Safety in this context is, however, unavoidably relative. The current arrangements aren’t entirely safe. All the available evidence suggests that the threat posed by this virus will be with us for up to 2 years. It is not conceivable that schools will remain closed to the vast majority of pupils for that length of time or that the school unions could impose that on government.
Also, schools are not closed, they never have been. In fact, schools have been open for longer that in any other year, including over Easter and bank holidays. They have remained open, of course for a very limited number of pupils and for a specific purpose- to look after the children of key workers and the vulnerable. In my own local authority area, which there is no reason to think is atypical, this has meant on average 2% of children have been in school in normal term time.
So, the issue is not simply when is it safe for schools to reopen but how and when can we make it as safe as possible for them to admit more pupils. Alongside this are the questions of which children and what activities should have priority when a return is possible. Some of the specific measures which could maximise safety can be captured in the NEU’s five tests. For example
• Social distancing must continue, eg rotating year groups, smaller classes, changes to routines and use of spaces including at break and lunch
• This should include PPE provided where appropriate and based on consultation with staff and unions
• Shielding for the vulnerable must continue and be strengthened. There is a conflict between the advice from the government and NEU on who should be shielded from having to attend work. The government recommend this protection only to the ‘extremely vulnerable’. This dispute has not come to a head because the number of pupils in school and staff required to support them have been so low that it has usually been possible to shield the vulnerable. If we move to a much fuller return it will not be possible to dodge this issue. We need guarantees that the vulnerable and those that live them will be shielded before there an be a return
Other measures need to be added to the tests
• Continued support for self-isolation and Covid sickness, ie sick pay not counted against entitlements and absence not include in managing attendance procedures. A punitive approach to sickness and isolation will lead workers to come in when they shouldn’t ad put everyone at risk.
• Full sick pay and self-isolation pay for supply teachers, other agency workers and outsourced school workers. We are not safe if our supply or ancillary staff feel forced to come to work while ill or at risk to avoid loss of income.
• Any return must be phased and agreed with our unions
• The curriculum priority must be to welcome and reintegrate children and young people to the school community, to recognise and respond to the situation they have been through and to provide some enjoyment in learning
• The pause of non-essential processes must remain, eg performance management, support plans, capability, absence monitoring.
In light of all of this the current position of school workers’ unions should be that, unless the society-wide evidence changes significantly, there should be no wider school return until September 1st (with no requirement to work in the summer holidays) and only then if the measures set out here are all in place and required of all schools. This term should be used to open discussions on the conditions for a September return. Any agreement with government should be put out for consultation with union branches and then subject to agreement a full online meeting of National Executives.