Schools return: Calls for teachers to be vaccinated over half-term

Katherine Johnston (03 February, 2021)

'Fire fighters don’t announce in advance when they’ll leave a fire - they stay until it's been put out'

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Teachers and politicians in Southwark have called on the government to prioritise teachers in the next stage of vaccinations.

Southwark Council’s education boss, Cllr Jasmine Ali, is supporting Labour leader Keir Starmer’s call for teachers to be given vaccination priority in the coming weeks.

Starmer has said teacher vaccinations could take place during the February half term before schools fully reopen; to minimise risk.

Although education secretary Gavin Williamson has said school staff would be given ‘top priority’ in the next phase, there have been no concrete details or set dates, and some MPs and government advisers have argued there is a moral duty to vaccinate the most clinically vulnerable people first.

Currently, any key worker groups including teachers and other frontline workers will not be vaccinated until all care home residents and workers, over 80s, over 70s, and then over 50s and people aged 16-64 with underlying health conditions have had their jobs.

The exact dates and priorities given to other frontline workers, from transport staff to postal workers, has not been decided but are expected to be announced soon.

The government’s current plan is based around a phased return from March 8 after a review on infection rates and the new variants of the virus and their foothold in the UK held on February 15, with further details published on February 22 – potentially leaving little time to prepare.

Karl Eastham is a teacher and Southwark Labour councillor for Chaucer ward. He told the News: “As a teacher in Southwark, I want nothing more than to be back in the classroom.

“After a series of failures on access to technology and free school meals, the government has got to get it right this time.

“Giving us a date is not enough. I want the government to work with schools and councils so that we can be reassured that school return is safe and sustainable so we can get the education of our young people back on track.”

James McAsh, also a Southwark Labour councillor and a primary school teacher, tweeted:  “We don’t need a date pulled out of nowhere. We need clear criteria for when it’s safe, subject to public scrutiny.

“Fire fighters don’t announce in advance when they’ll leave a fire – they stay until it’s been put out.”

Last year unions, teachers and parents were left divided over when and how to close schools – with many reluctant to harm children’s education but concerned classrooms were one of the main drivers of transmission in the community.

According to Department for Education figures, the rate of COVID-19 infection among primary and secondary teachers is 1.9 times higher than in the general population.

The rate among teaching assistants in special schools is seven times higher.

Infections among pupils is believed to have peaked around Christmas, when one in eighteen secondary pupils In London and one in 23 primary pupils had COVID-19.

Lack of PPE, poor ventilation, limited space and crowding issues in schools have all been highlighted as causes for concern.

Joint general secretary of the National Education Union, Dr Mary Bousted, emphasised that reopening had to be done ‘sustainably’.

“We all want schools to open, but like the Prime Minister we want them to open when it is safe to do so. This has to be done sustainably and safely,” she said in a statement after Johnson’s announced hopes for reopening in March.

“We agree with Boris Johnson that this is a balancing act. He has a duty to assess the easing of lockdown according to the progress and effects of vaccination, a reduction in cases and the various other criteria he has set out.

“But in setting out a potential date of 8 March, falling once again into his characteristic and too often misplaced optimism, he is pre-empting a decision that will have to be made in mid-February at the very earliest.

“If we come out too early, we will end up in lockdown again.

“Hinging his argument for schools according to the first four vaccine groups developing immunity by 8 March, is not enough in itself.

“This may protect the elderly and most vulnerable adults in the population, but it does not protect parents.  It fails completely to recognise the role schools have played in community transmission.

“The Prime Minister has already forgotten what he told the nation at the beginning of this lockdown, that schools are a ‘vector for transmission’.”

There are also calls for other sectors to benefit from early vaccination. High on the agenda are police officers, transport workers and supermarket staff.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, has said she was ‘baffled’ that officers were not protected despite the risks and number of incidents involving her staff being coughed and spat on.

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