Coronavirus: Opening schools next month is ‘reckless’ say unions

Katherine Johnston (20 May, 2020)

Is June 1 start date safe?

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Teaching unions in Southwark have branded the government’s hopes to reopen schools in June as ‘reckless’ and say their members will refuse to work in unsafe conditions.

Top public schools including Eton, Harrow and Westminster will not resume this term, but the government wants state schools to open where possible to limited year groups – including year one and six – to stop disadvantaged children from being permanently left behind.

A clutch of councils including Bury, Wirral, Hartlepool and Calverdale, all in areas of the north where COVID-19 infections remain high, have all advised their schools to stay closed for now and criticised the government’s decision-making.

When asked whether returning to class on June 1 in Southwark was safe, council leader Peter John told the News: “What I know is that in order for schools to reopen, they needed three weeks’ notice.

“Is it safe? I don’t know. It’s for each individual school to determine.

 “We’re helping schools undertake pretty rigorous risk assessments with the year groups suggested by the government.

“My view is that we should look to see how we can help schools with safety, whether on June 1 or in later weeks.”

He added: ”It’s not in local councils’ hands. It’s for the schools to make that decision or the government.

“Parents will also make a decision on whether to take their kids back and we will support them in whatever decision they make.”

He also says decisions on how to handle parents who refuse – including whether fines would be given – are not currently on the cards.

“I don’t think we can take any of those decisions until September.

“We can’t enforce parents taking children back to school and I don’t think we’d want to at the moment,” adding, “The last thing this needs to be is confrontational.

“It needs to be a supportive process across the board.

“Most parents will want to take their kids back to school. I’m saddened it’s become confrontational as an issue.”

By mid-May around 815 pupils were attending schools in Southwark. The majority (88 per cent) were in primaries, with 10 per cent in secondaries. Most have keyworker parents. The News understands parents, staff and council officers are setting up ‘schools recovery groups’ to help plan the next steps.

But after reports the ‘R’ rate has risen again, ongoing PPE supply problems, and the death toll now passing 40,000 according to Tuesday’s Office for National Statistics figures, concerts are growing that reopening schools too hastily could lead to a second spike.

Backbench Southwark Labour councillor James McAsh, who is also a primary school teacher in Brixton, tweeted: “Is it true that children are less likely to die from the virus? Statistically, yes it is.

“But the first child to die from coronavirus lived a few minutes from my school.  So forgive me if I don’t find that argument too reassuring.”

The editor’s view: Reopening schools risks more harm than good

He joined the largest mass conference call in trade union history on Monday, with 16,000 National Education Union members discussing the government’s plans. He says a union meeting at his school unanimously agreed to reject the June 1 start date.

Southwark’s UNISON’s branch is also appealing for the borough’s schools to stay closed after June 1, describing it as a ‘reckless move by the government’.

In a statement sent to the News, branch secretary April Ashley called on the council to defy the government: “Southwark currently has one of the highest proportion of Covid-19 cases in London and black workers are more than twice as likely to contract, and die of the virus.

“Reopening schools and nurseries will place the black community, and the children of key workers at great risk by allowing the virus to re-enter circulation. Everyone is worried about a second spike.”

Members say private nurseries have also largely been ignored in the public debate, arguing they will be forced to weigh up financial viability against safety measures without extra financial support.

A coalition of unions are calling for local authorities to be given the autonomy to close schools where testing indicates clusters of new Covid-19 cases, and for no increase in pupil numbers until the nationwide rollout of the track and trace app, along with other key demands on PPE and safety.

Meanwhile a survey by NASUWT, the teachers’ union found that only five per cent of 29,000 teachers think it is safe to reopen in June.

A petition to stop schools from opening on June 1 has been set up here http://chng.it/VzM4brz58R

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