Unions release joint statement slamming “chaotic” schools reopening

Elliot Chappell

Six trade unions have released a joint statement on the safe reopening of schools and slammed the government for its “chaotic handling” of the return of children to the classroom for the start of term this January amid the Covid crisis.

The statement, circulated this morning and signed by GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, UNISON and Unite, criticised the government’s insistence on sending children back to school sites for in-person lessons and warned it could “fuel the pandemic”.

The organisations argued the approach pursued by Downing Street is “exposing education sector workers to serious risk” and urged the Prime Minister to “sit down with unions to discuss a joint approach to ensuring safe working arrangements”.

Commenting on the call from the unions, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said: “The government’s own advice from SAGE makes it clear that opening schools to all pupils now risks increasing the infection rate. That’s in no-one’s interests.”

Members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies advised the Prime Minister in late December that schools would need to close, concluding that “R [the reproduction number for the virus] would be lower with schools closed”.

O’Grady added: “Instead of creating chaos for parents and exposing workers to risks, the Prime Minister should be talking to trade unions about what steps are needed to make sure all schools are Covid-secure.”

The intervention from the unions this morning followed the government U-turn last week, in which Tory minister Gavin Williamson told MPs the reopening of some schools would be delayed until mid-January.

But the Education Secretary told MPs that the “overwhelming majority” of primary schools would return as normal this week, with a list later published showing that some Tier 4 primary schools would close while others would stay open.

All primary schools in London and some in surrounding areas are not set to open until January 18th. Councils in other areas, such as in Kent and Cumbria, have urged the government to allow them to keep their schools closed.

General secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT Paul Whiteman said it was “very hard to tell” how many schools would be open for the start of the term and described it as a “confusing picture for school leaders and families alike”.

Labour demanded on Sunday afternoon a fresh national lockdown for England, within 24 hours, that would include a “much clearer direction to stay at home, re-evaluation of non-essential services that are open and national restrictions”.

Unite, UNISON, GMB and the biggest education unions called for a pause in reopenings over the weekend, and Labour frontbenchers Marsha de Cordova and Sam Tarry have called for schools to be included in a national lockdown.

Labour has not supported the call by the unions for a pause in the reopening of schools for anyone other than vulnerable children and those of key workers and the move to remote learning while safe working arrangements are put in place.

Labour’s Kate Green told the Today programme this morning that the lockdown proposed by the opposition party would “try to get this virus under control and to keep children in class”.

The Shadow Education Secretary added: “Clearly the Prime Minister doesn’t think that they’re all safe workplaces, or he wouldn’t be closing secondary schools this week and next week to many pupils in primary schools in some Tier 4 areas.

“I do understand there are concerns amongst school staff about support they’ve been asking for that they’ve not received, but I think it was reassuring to hear that the risk to children from this disease – young children – doesn’t appear to have changed.

“What I think is really important is that the government takes the measures that are needed on personal protective equipment, ventilation and mass testing and so on, reassures school staff and parents and if it doesn’t do that I fear unfortunately more school closures are inevitable.”

Below is the full text of the joint statement signed by the unions.

The government’s chaotic handling of the opening of schools has caused confusion for teachers, school staff and parents alike. Bringing all pupils back into classrooms while the rate of infection is so high is exposing education sector workers to serious risk of ill-health and could fuel the pandemic.

Unions have called for a pause in the reopening of schools for anyone other than vulnerable children and children of key workers, and a move to remote learning for all while Covid-secure working arrangements are reviewed. All school staff continuing to work in schools should be given priority access to Covid-19 vaccinations.

Instead of casually asserting that schools are safe, the Prime Minister should sit down with unions to discuss a joint approach to ensuring safe working arrangements in all schools and prioritising enabling all pupils have the equipment and access they need to receive a high standard of remote learning until the safety of them and the staff in their school can be guaranteed.

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