The Tories’ threat to reopen schools to some children “as soon as June 1st” has met with unprecedented resistance from educators and parents around the country. Online meetings this week have been attended by thousands of union members, with 2,500 reps attending one National Education Union call. Over 7,500 people have joined the NEU and around 300 have volunteered to be reps since Boris Johnson’s announcement on Sunday. Over 500,000 people have signed a petition demanding parents are given the option not to send their children back to school in June. Unions representing educators have put out joint statements demonstrating very clear opposition to the Tories’ plan, and the British Medical Association wrote to the NEU supporting the union’s stance against reopening.
A Daily Mail headline recently called on unions to “Let our teachers be heroes” - it masked a disgraceful attack on workers, assisted by figures from the Labour right such as David Blunkett and Barry Sheerman. Just like with other key workers, this “hero” narrative is designed to let the Government get away with attacks on workers, forcing them into work without proper health and safety measures and making the Covid-19 pandemic worse. They talk about heroes - what the Mail and other right-wingers want is martyrs.
The Tories claim that schools must be reopened to help parents and carers. Of course schools being closed puts parents in a difficult situation, and schools have remained open to vulnerable children and the children of key workers. The Tories’ claim to care about parents and carers rings hollow - if it wasn’t for their plans to reopen non-essential businesses, more parents could stay at home with their children. They have also rejected calls to make free school meals available in half term and the summer holidays, despite the ongoing crisis.
The guidance from the NEU is for members to refuse to engage in any plans to return on June 1st. An unequivocal instruction from unions representing head teachers to refuse to reopen schools would be a huge blow to the Government’s plans. Head teachers and local authorities have a duty under Section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 "to ensure ... the health safety and welfare of all their employees whilst they are at work". Under the current crisis this requirement simply cannot be met. Educators at any level who refuse to comply with the Government’s instructions to reopen should be supported by their unions.
The Government has added a note to their guidance on reopening schools to state that it “should be treated as a guide” and if there is any conflict with existing legislation, the legislation should prevail against their guidance. It is clear that the guidance in itself breaches health and safety legislation, and this clarification strengthens the case to refuse to comply with reopening. The devolved Governments in Wales and Scotland have already said they will not be reopening on June 1st, with schools in Scotland believed to be unlikely to reopen before September.
A very serious health and safety issue occurred this week at a school in Eastbourne, where a member of staff tested positive for Covid-19 and senior management were informed on Monday 11th, but other staff and the unions were not informed until Friday 15th. Staff and key workers’ children continued to attend the school, leading to a risk of widespread infection. Another school in Derby has had to close for a “deep clean” after two cases of Covid-19 were detected. Schools cannot safely reopen in these circumstances.
A Government briefing from Education Minister Gavin Williamson on Saturday seemed to indicate that the Tories have been pushed back further, with Williamson stating that the Government’s five tests would have to be met for schools to reopen. However, the testing strategy put forward - to test children and families if they display coronavirus symptoms - is extremely limited. The evidence shows that children can have Covid-19 and not have symptoms, meaning that testing would need to be carried out more widely. Williamson also echoed his friends in the Daily Mail and sought to drive a wedge between the leadership of the education unions and school staff: the level of organisation on the ground shows that educators, not so-called “union barons”, are the people demanding a fightback against reopening.
The response to a weak Government giving the appearance of being pushed back is not for the trade unions to back off, but to keep pushing them further. That means continuing to organise educators to refuse to engage with a June 1st reopening, and to organise parents and carers to boycott the return. Unfortunately, statements from the leadership of the NEU and NASUWT on Saturday seemed weaker than some previous statements. The NEU’s Five Tests have not been met: until they are, schools should not be reopened and the unions should not be involved in discussions about facilitating reopening.
Local authorities around the country have a clear choice ahead of them: will they follow the Tories’ instructions, or keep schools closed to keep children, educators and their families safe? Liverpool and Hartlepool council have both confirmed that they will not be opening schools on June 1st. Unfortunately Liverpool council subsequently stated that they may be able to open just two weeks later on June 15th, which would still be unsafe. Other councils are expected to also reject reopening on June 1st. This is a positive step, and they should not reopen until schools are safe.
All Labour councils should stand with workers by refusing to open schools, rather than doing the Tories’ dirty work. The Government’s emergency legislation suggests that they have the power to “force” schools to open, but in the current climate it would be difficult for them to fight any school or LA who refused to open. Workers, parents, the trade unions and the community will back up any resistance to reopening, and this weak Government can be pushed back.
While calling on councils to resist this drive to reopen schools prematurely, educators must continue to step up and organise against it themselves. We won’t let educators, children and families be sacrificed for the profit of big business.