Keep the Schools Closed

As Covid wreaks havoc on the NHS, the government's plan to open schools this Monday is a serious risk to public health. School workers have a duty to push back – and we have a duty to support them.

Last term, primary and secondary schools alike proved hotbeds for Covid-19 – with as many as 1 in 50 primary and 1 in 33 secondary children infected by the Christmas holidays.

As the new strain spreads, deaths and hospitalisations rocket, and the NHS reaches breaking point, it is clear that the urgent priority must be to do whatever it takes to halt the spread of the virus. Since schools have been a major site of transmission, their closures will be key to getting the situation quickly under control.

But what about the importance of education? The negative impact of lockdown on young people? These are important factors to consider, of course, and as a teacher I am painfully aware of them. However, they must be considered in context. They do not override the fact that children are taking home the virus to their loved ones or that education workers are dying: catastrophising about a few weeks of remote learning will only get in the way of the swift action required to control our current situation.

Schools are not immune from this pandemic – however much certain politicians might like to pretend otherwise. Indeed, the new strain, combined with the crowded nature of school settings, appears to be making them uniquely high-risk. Our workplaces aren’t safe: not for students, staff, or the communities we exist within.

In fact, when Covid rates are high, education is immensely disrupted even in ‘open’ schools. Pupils and staff fall ill, or have to isolate due to contact with those who have; attendance plummets and schools become so understaffed that one school near me introduced something called ‘supercover’, in which one teacher supervises up to four classes at once in the hall while pupils all do their various lessons on their iPads.

The reality is that keeping schools fully open and functioning without getting community cases under control has never been an option.

Given all this, we must approach school reopening with caution. The first two weeks of January must be used to take stock of the new strain, and the fall out from Christmas, while implementing necessary measures to improve school safety before a wider return. Scientists have urged the government to close schools, and with the vaccination roll-out in sight, now is not the time to take chances.

The government’s announcement yesterday demonstrates a significant shift in their position – it was not that long ago they were threatening schools with legal measures for trying to move to remote learning. But their plans to have most primary schools and all special schools back on Monday, with secondary pupils set to return shortly after, amount to half-measures which risk falling short and giving the new strain vital weeks to strengthen its grip.

This is particularly true given that the list of areas where primary schools will remain open does not include some of the boroughs with the highest Covid rates. Not to mention the difficulties of social distancing in primary and SEND settings – or the ethical implications of asking pupils with special needs to return first.

Of course, the government’s chaotic, inadequate, and last-minute approach is nothing new. Their haphazard management of schools (perhaps best exemplified by the aforementioned legal threat) has become so incoherent that by the end of last term it felt as if their primary agenda was simply to crush a workforce who, last spring and summer, dared to resist them.

But the truth is that throughout this pandemic, the arrangements for schools have only ever been as safe as school workers (often in alliance with parents) have organised for.

The government cannot be trusted, and Labour’s ‘no ifs, no buts’ approach has only served to preclude the sensible compromises and flexibility that education in a time of pandemic requires. If we recognise the need for a fortnight of school closures, and equivalent measures going forwards, it falls on us as school workers to organise for and win these.

The education union movement in schools is strong – particularly the National Education Union, which has gained 50,000 members since the pandemic started. What’s more, the NEU’s demands for January are common sense: schools should open to the children of key workers and vulnerable children until 18 January, staff must begin to have access to the vaccine, and some form of functioning test system must be put in place for all members of school communities.

Achieving these measures will require a range of strategies. The mass mobilisation tactics used last summer allowed quick responses to government decisions and helped put weight to the word of the leadership. These should be drawn upon again – from mass Zoom calls to petitions.

They are key for rallying workers and equipping them with the tools and confidence to take action; here, a national lead from the NEU is essential. Alongside this, members of the public in support of school closures should write to their councils and MPs over the following days. Parents should plan to withdraw their children and write to their head teachers explaining their concerns.

Ultimately, however, our power lies in school workers’ labour and our ability to withdraw it. This issue is not going away. The union should survey members in coming weeks to gauge the appetite for strike action over measures like priority access to testing and vaccination – some divisions are already moving to do so on a local level.

More immediately, it’s time for the union to prepare members to invoke Section 44. This is the important legislation that allows members to refuse to attend an unsafe workplace. It has advantages over strike action because its effect is immediate.

The NEU has already provided template letters for workers calling on Section 44, and on a local level members have had successes in doing so. Any school asked to return fully within the first two weeks of term (and perhaps after, if cases are still soaring) should hold a meeting with other NEU members and agree by a majority vote to use Section 44 to claim their case for working from home.

All this will require effort from school workers. The government is asking us to endanger ourselves, our pupils and our communities, but we do not have to go along with it.

Public support for schools closing during the first two weeks of term is widespread. The government’s plans to force any schools to fully open during this time is reckless. It is time for school workers to draw upon the legal rights trade unionists long before us fought for, and stand up to this government’s disdain for school workers and our communities.

In the immediate term, that means using Section 44 to say no to unsafe workplaces and complicity in an unsafe society. This is the first step to demanding the sensible measures we, our pupils and our communities deserve. And if the government’s recklessness continues, it is time to organise for strike action.