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Back to School

Back to school: fight to make our classrooms Covid safe

For many, the relaxation of the government’s Covid safety guidelines on 16 August was met with a mixture of relief and trepidation. There was relief that we could once again meet with loved ones, go out with friends, and return to some semblance of normality. But there was also trepidation that the government had gone too far and too fast in junking safety measures. And with schools now set to reopen across England, Wales and Northern Ireland (schools in Scotland have already been back for two weeks), education workers like myself are all too familiar with this troubling dissonance. In fact, thanks to the ‘Leicester Fortnight’, Students and education workers in my area were back to school in the week beginning 23 August… and I can already say that many of my concerns have been borne out.

Last Tuesday, the Guardian published a short article which interviewed six teachers about how they felt about returning to school. The views differed, of course, but the majority expressed serious concerns about workplace safety. One teacher stated: “I couldn’t believe it when students were told they no longer had to wear masks. The whole system is a farce. I’d be very surprised if this is a school year that is ‘normal’ again. Too many [Covid] cases, too few measures.” The report from a teacher at a school in Scotland, which like in Leicester has already returned, is prescient: “Nearly 200 pupils [in his school] are already off due to Covid”. Indeed, Scotland has seen a surge of covid cases over the last two weeks, for now stabilising at around 6,000 daily infections – the highest ever – even though many restrictions remain in place!

School outbreaks

Part of the problem with managing covid in our schools has to do with years of underinvestment in education infrastructure, as well as the pernicious role of privatisation (academisation). But it also has to do with the way that covid cases have been identified up until now. Current research around the Covid virus is that transmission takes place mainly via airborne particles. This means that the small, oversubscribed classrooms, typical of the UK state schooling system, have acted as effective breeding grounds for the virus. This was clearly understood by education stewards and workers in the earlier stages of the pandemic and was consistently affirmed by medical professionals. The Department for Education’s (DfE) recent (and inadequate) decision to spend £25million on 300,000 CO2 monitors to alert staff and students if CO2 levels rise, meaning that fresh air is failing to circulate, is a recognition of this. The fact that they have failed to complete even these minor adjustments before schools have returned demonstrates a cavalier attitude toward the wellbeing of education workers and children.

However, it is a reality which many local authorities and school leaders continue to deny. Gripped by a surging second wave, back in March this year Martin Samuels, Leicester city council’s strategic director of social care and education, persistently took to the press to deny that schools could be vectors of transmission, instead blaming parents for irresponsible behaviour at the school gates. On 31 July, the Times ran an article headlined ‘Study shows schools do not spread Covid’ (based on the following research: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01826-x).

The evidence for such assertions is the ostensibly small number of ‘outbreaks’ we have previously seen in schools. But this evidence is based on flawed testing guidelines. Before the government guidelines were updated on Monday August 16, staff and students exposed to a positive case were required to self-isolate without getting a PCR test. The consequence of this has been to obfuscate any outbreaks in schools, making it appear like all infections were coming from the community. With testing now becoming more widely used (in order to keep staff and students in schools), we may yet see dramatic evidence of mass school outbreaks.

Tory cowardice

The government is now fully committed to avoiding any further lockdowns come what may (‘let the bodies pile high’, Boris Johnson said) — and they have done this in the most cowardly fashion possible… by passing responsibility for safety measures onto anyone but themselves. As a BBC report states: “In many ways, the responsibility has been handed over to head teachers to decide what common-sense measures are needed.” Some school leaders will decide to keep some of the safety measures, such as one-way systems and limitations on mixing. Some school leaders, no doubt seeing rumblings from below, are taking a tougher approach than that suggested by the government. Others may see this as an opportunity to return to normal. But most likely, school leaders will look to Local Authorities and Public Health England (PHE) for guidance. This is the case in Leicester where the Local Authority has issued a series of guidelines for schools and PHE continues to work closely with all involved.

But workers cannot rely on Local Authorities or quangos like PHE to look after their interests – it is critical that education unions step in to fill this vacuum with policies that foreground the safety and wellbeing of staff and students. Of course, fears about the tremendous educational and social damage done by confining children to their home for long periods of time are real. No one wants to return to another lockdown, least of all education workers. But if we are to avoid further damaging restrictions, it is imperative that any steps toward lifting safety measures are careful and not rushed. By contrast, in areas where schools have already reopened, the approach has been complete chaos. This unfortunate situation has been allowed to develop because, so far, the unions have failed to intervene with a sufficiently bold approach. Appeals by education union leaders for the government to see sense are not enough. Words need to be backed by action to force their hand and to enable organised workers to take control over safety measures.

Safety is not the only problem either. Concerns about workload also need to be urgently addressed. As one education worker in the Wirral explained, “I feel tired just thinking about returning to work.” She continues: “Some of the usual demands of the job were minimised due to covid restrictions, such as fewer long reports to write; now they will be reinstated along with covid considerations.” Many education workers have also found that since teaching remotely there are now fewer boundaries between work and life, with parents more frequently in contact. All of this with no pay-rise!?

Who is still at risk?

The vaccine is a huge benefit to us all, but it is not a silver bullet. The main risks may not now be covid deaths (although this remains a serious concern) or even the dreaded ‘long covid’, but the NHS being completely overwhelmed by covid related admissions, and people being denied critical care because of a lack of capacity. We have already seen multiple Trusts announce ‘Opel 4’ Black Alerts, meaning that hospitals are “unable to deliver comprehensive care” and patient safety is at risk, over recent months. Typically, Black Alerts – which to be clear should never happen, let alone become the norm as they have under the Tories – are most associated with the darkest months of Winter. Spiralling infection rates in our schools could severely exacerbate this crisis, especially when flu season begins.

Too often, the health and wellbeing of education workers and students is discussed as if it is somehow separate from that of NHS workers. Nothing could be further from the truth. The NHS is the biggest employer in the country. It is made up of the parents, the siblings, the relatives and the friends of education workers and students. We all depend on it when we are unwell. When the NHS is in crisis it hurts all of us. So, when we talk about protecting the health and wellbeing NHS workers, we are simultaneously talking about the conditions of education workers and students. They are bound together by so many threads. The fight for safety in our schools is also, therefore, a fight for the future of our NHS! This is just one of the reasons why it is so important to get the school reopening right and why it is so troubling that the government, once again, are about to get it so wrong!

We say:

  • Make school safe – for democratic control by education workers, students and communities over the measures necessary to keep classrooms Covid safe
  • Trade union action now – the leadership of the main education unions, including NEU and Unison, need to step up and back up strong words with well-organised and coordinated action by workers
  • Invest in our schools and stop the cuts – let’s put an end to crammed classrooms and properly support the Covid generation
  • No to academisation and privatisation – bring all schools back under local-authority control now

Image: AugusteBlanqui, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons