Unions have responded to the Prime Minister’s statement that schools will reopen on March 8. (from Union News website LINK)
NEU general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said:
“Today’s announcement that all pupils will return to English schools on 8 March demonstrates, again, that Boris Johnson has, despite all his words of caution, failed to learn the lessons of his previous mistakes.
“Whilst cases of Covid infection are falling, along with hospitalisation rates, it remains the case, unfortunately, that cases are three times higher now than when schools re-opened last September. This fact, alone, should have induced caution rather than, in the words of Nadhim Zahawi an ‘ambitious’ school return which runs the risk of schools, once again, becoming, in the Prime Minister’s words on 4 January, ‘vector of transmission’ into the community. This risk is greatly elevated because of the new variants of Covid which are significantly more transmissive.
“Why has the English government not taken the same route as Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland whose cautious, phased approach to school opening will enable their governments to assess the impact a return to the classroom will have on the R rate and to make necessary adjustments to their plans.
“A ‘big bang’ school reopening brings 10 million people back into crowded buildings with no social distancing and inadequate ventilation. The wearing of face masks by pupils and staff in in secondary school lessons is a welcome measure but it is not, on its own enough.
“The government has had two months to put extra mitigations in place to stop the growth in infection in schools that was seen from September to December. Where are the ventilation units for classrooms? Where are the nightingale classrooms? Where is the PHE testing which school leaders could rely upon to give more accurate results? It is no good political parties talking about these safeguards when they know very well that they have not been put in place and will not be put in place by 8 March. Words are cheap. Actions are needed.
“The government must publish the science and the modelling which informs their unique school return plan. It should also make plans to protect vulnerable and older education staff who should be supported to work from home until their vaccinations take effect.
“While schools and colleges will, as always, go the extra mile, headteachers should have been given the flexibility offered in the other nations to plan for a phased school return. It would have been far better to take that time to plan and implement a successful and sustainable wider opening – which today’s announcement does not, unfortunately, guarantee.”
The UCU said any wider reopening of college and university campuses from 8 March is irresponsible and risks undoing the country’s hard work to get Covid rates down.
The union called on employers to use common sense and keep teaching online wherever possible to reduce the risk of further Covid outbreaks. It said that for many courses this would mean there should mean no return to on-campus activity this academic year.
Where courses do require an element of in-person teaching, the union said employers must meet with UCU health and safety representatives to agree new risk assessments to protect staff, students and the wider community. It said assessments need to take account of a number of including the increased transmissibility of new variants, ventilation, PPE and how to support workers who need to shield. It also raised concerns over the potential use of lateral flow tests.
UCU said that where staff feel their health and safety is being put at risk, it will support members to fight to protect themselves, colleagues and students, including through industrial action ballots.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said:
“The Prime Minister seems to be pushing ahead with an irresponsible reopening of schools, colleges and universities at the same time. Pushing students and staff back onsite increases the risk of more Covid outbreaks and threatens to undo the country’s hard work to get infection rates down.
“Lateral flow tests are completely unsuitable for testing on campuses. They are unreliable and incorrect negative results may give people a false sense of security, increasing the risk outbreaks. The government must not use them to reopen colleges and universities.
“We expect employers to keep teaching online wherever possible to prevent campuses from seeding the virus. For many courses this will mean no return to campus this academic year. UCU accepts that some university and college courses will need some in-person teaching but this needs to be very carefully managed to keep staff and students safe. Employers will need to agree new risk assessments with our health and safety representatives that take account of increased transmission rates of new variants, ventilation, PPE and how vulnerable employees will be supported to stay off campus.
“Employers must work with us to protect staff and student safety. If our members feel their health and safety is being put at risk, then we will support them to protect themselves, including through balloting for industrial action where necessary.”