We Need to Know Our Schools Are Safe

Teachers understand how important it is to get children back to school – but their unions have raised clear and valid concerns about safety that the government has failed to answer, argues Rebecca Long-Bailey.

Teachers and teaching assistants want to teach. Head teachers want to open schools. School support staff want to be back at work. And everyone agrees that the sooner children are back in the classroom the better, for the sake of their education, wellbeing and to tackle ever widening educational inequalities. 

But there are serious problems with the proposed plan for pupils to return to schools in England from June 1st. Concerns including the feasibility of the social distancing measures proposed and protection of children, staff and parents have been raised in recent days by parents, school leaders, teaching staff and trade unions.

The primary consideration in deciding how and when schools reopen must be the safety of pupils, their families, school staff and the public at large. If we do not get this right, we risk schools becoming hotspots of Covid-19 as well as a loss of confidence in the handling of the epidemic from parents and those who work in schools, from teachers to caretakers. It is important to get children back in the classroom, but just as important is ensuring the safety of staff, pupils and their families.

The science that the government says it follows is still unclear on how the virus mutates, whether children are carriers and what the impact of the virus on children might be. Parents are understandably concerned that their children are missing out on vital education, but want to be reassured as well about their children’s safety before they return in greater numbers. Education unions are rightly concerned for the risk of illness that their members face but also for the pupils that they will be teaching and the parents of those in their charge. 

The British Medical Association said last week that “the NEU is absolutely right to urge caution, to prioritise testing and to protect the vulnerable.” “We cannot risk a second spike or take actions which would increase the spread of this virus,” their statement continued, “particularly as we see sustained rates of infection across the UK.”

Teachers do a fantastic job in educating our children and young people, and have been working throughout this crisis to support the families they work with. Many schools have remained open to teach the children of key workers and all teachers have been providing learning, whether at a school or from home.

The criticism that has been thrown their way as a means of forcing a confrontation on this sensitive issue is completely unjustified. Teachers want to see their pupils again soon but are right to be cautious about the practicality of increasing pupil numbers from June 1st while enforcing reasonable social distancing. 

It is not clear how schools are meant to maintain social distancing at two metres apart in a classroom of 4 and 5 year olds. Splitting classes to 15 will not be possible in most schools due to staff numbers and in many schools there isn’t the physical capacity to space out 15 pupils at two metres each.

Government advice on ‘Covid Secure’ involves limits on the size of groups that can work together. There is detail for high congestion areas – one way flows are recommended. Pens shouldn’t be shared and neither should tools and equipment and, where they have to be, there should be ‘drop off zones.’ Meetings should be held outside or in ‘well ventilated rooms’ and there is constant repetition of the need for surface cleaning and hand washing. How do these practical and eminently sensible considerations get delivered in a busy school?

The National Education Union has provided five sensible tests to enable pupils to return to school in greater numbers and in the safest way possible. These involve lowering infection rates, a realistic plan for social distancing, comprehensive access to testing, a plan for when cases occur, and protection for vulnerable staff.

These are reasonable proposals and it should be within reach to achieve an agreement on this basis. The government must work collaboratively with trade unions and parents’ organisations to create a series of clear and practical safety conditions that are met within schools before there is a reopening. 

We need clarity and consensus on such a vital matter. After the hugely impressive response from the British public to clear instruction over this pandemic, now is not a time for ambiguity and unnecessary risk. 

When schools do return on a phased basis, a package of academic and pastoral support will be necessary to ensure that those already disadvantaged going into this crisis are not disproportionately affected.

This could include enhanced pupil premium funding, a national programme of emotional and well-being support to all students and modifications to next year’s curriculum and exams. We will also be seeking consideration of the specific needs of vulnerable students and families facing economic disadvantage as well as those children who cannot return due to clinical vulnerability of themselves or their family.

Those who teach the three Rs should not be put at risk of unwillingly taking the national R over 1 when all they ask is to work as safely as possible. It is more important than ever for the government to work with the sector to get this right in the best interests of children, families and staff.