Teaching unions warn against premature reopening of schools

By agency reporter
May 6, 2020

A snapshot survey of over 2,000 school staff shows significant concerns about effectiveness of present social-distancing measures in schools. One third of educators have self-isolated since March. Only 11 per cent have access to regular temperature checks in their school.

Over the weekend of 2-3 May, the National Education Union conducted a snapshot survey of 2,560 mainstream school staff in England about the management of the Covid-19 crisis. Amidst constant speculation about when and how schools will re-open, the results highlight serious concerns from key workers about the preparedness of schools to open safely to an increased number of pupils.

The findings showed:

  • Almost a quarter (23 per cent) of staff are currently shielding to protect themselves or a member of their household, owing to pre-existing medical conditions or pregnancy. This is higher in London (28 per cent).
  • A third of educators (30 per cent) have spent time in self-isolation since lockdown was imposed. This was higher amongst respondents in London (36 per cent).
  • Just 1.5 per cent of those surveyed have been tested for Coronavirus. This tracks very closely with the number in the survey who have been diagnosed as having the virus.

1,931 of the respondents are regularly attending work in their school and thus able to see first-hand the preparedness or otherwise for a greater expansion in pupil numbers when lockdown eases. 

  • Just 11 per cent of this group said their school was conducting a temperature check for staff and pupils.
  • Around a quarter (22 per cent) of these respondents said their school did not have sufficient soap and/or hand sanitiser. The same proportion said there was no routine of hand washing at their school.
  • 61 per cent of respondents said they were ‘concerned’ or ‘very concerned’ about the social distancing measures in their school for pupils. This is in the context of just two per cent of pupils attending school, according to national statistics.
  • When the question turned to similar measures for staff, 50 per cent expressed concern. One in five are ‘very concerned’.

Commenting on the findings of the survey, Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: “Teachers, heads and support staff have been working hard since mid-March to support each one of their pupils, whether at school or remotely. Throughout this time school leaders have done their level best to ensure the safety of staff and pupils alike, but this can only go so far. It is clear from the findings of this survey that much more needs to be done to equip schools for the road ahead.

“With thousands of new cases of COVID-19 announced each day, the Government is being premature in its off-the-record briefings about school re-openings.  We have written repeatedly to the Government to get them to reveal their modelling of the spread of the virus in schools and with what measures they are planning to mitigate the obvious risks for adults working in schools, as well as children’s families, particularly those living with vulnerable relatives. We have not yet received any reply.

“There should be no mad rush to re-open schools. It must be done with great care, and alongside a profession who feel confident about safety measures being adequate and fit for purpose. Parents also agree with us – they have shown immense patience in recent weeks, for which all school staff are grateful. But that goodwill and effort from the public will be squandered by returning pupils too hastily. Safety must come first.

“We need to see evidence of a sustained downward trend in cases, a national plan for social distancing and PPE, comprehensive access to testing for staff and pupils and a whole school strategy for when cases emerge before plans can be made to open schools on a wider basis than at present.”

The General Secretaries of 10 teacher trade unions across the UK and Ireland have written to the Education Ministers in all five jurisdictions urging “significant caution" in any consideration of reopening schools.

The letter, sent by the British Irish Group of Teacher Unions (BIGTU) on behalf of almost 1 million teachers and education staff,  warns of the “very real risk of creating a spike in the transmission of the virus by a premature opening of schools”.

It calls for the establishment of sufficient  capacity to “test trace and isolate”  the infection as a prerequisite for school reopening, alongside  “significant operational changes [being] in place to ensure effective social distancing, strong hygiene routines linked to thorough cleansing practices, appropriate PPE [being] available where required, and ongoing risk assessments in place to monitor operations.”

* Read the letter to Education Ministers here

* National Education Union https://neu.org.uk/


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