Schools Aren’t Safe! For Teachers’ and Parents’ Control of Reopening

May 30, 2020

Despite warnings from education unions, the Tories are ploughing ahead to reopen primary schools for the youngest children on 1st June.

At the time of writing, Wolverhampton, Sandwell and Dudley councils have declined to follow the example of others in England instruct schools only to begin reopening when it can be proved to be safe.

Here we republish two articles from Socialist Party teacher members:

Schools Aren’t Safe

Louise Cuffaro, NEU Newham branch secretary (pc) and Socialist Party

It’s reckless. It’s unsafe. It flies in the face of all advice from scientists and from teachers. The schools must not reopen on Monday 1 June.

The Tories have had to say they didn’t mean the 1 June reopening date for England ‘firmly’, but they clearly did. It doesn’t feel to me, or my members, or parents that the government has rowed back at all.

Everyone is supposed to be socially distancing outside school, but somehow when you get inside school it’s not so bad? The government says you can have 15 children in nursery, in reception, in Year One, in Year Six!

They haven’t seen their friends for goodness knows how long. They’re young children. They don’t understand. We don’t have the facilities or space to properly social distance, even if that alone was enough to make it safe.

Look carefully at what they’re proposing, especially in the younger age groups. They’re not going to be able to play with their toys. What if one child picks up a coloured pencil that the other child just used?

And there are no facilities to look after children and nurture them in what must be quite a traumatic time for them. Many in Newham have lost people in their families.

To return to school in these circumstances – it’s reckless.

But in fact, schools never closed. The National Education Union (NEU) is absolutely happy to carry on with a rota that cares for vulnerable and key workers’ children. We want to protect the NHS and other essential services. This is still a sacrifice, and still a danger. But it is much smaller numbers.

And our members not in class are still working from home. It’s not a case of ‘the schools are closed, so we’re doing sod all’. In fact, teachers have been working even harder, and in the most difficult situations.

We’re using IT in ways it’s not been used before, to provide activity and teaching to our students, both primary and secondary. Sometimes very long days, long hours online, making sure we are there for our students. And in primaries, making videos, presenting storytelling time, and so on.

Disgraceful headlines have called teachers lazy, and vilified unions who are trying to protect staff, students and their families. It’s outrageous, and smacks of the gutter press at the time of the miners’ strike, 1984-85.

We’re not saying we’re not prepared to go back. We want to go back – but only once it’s safe. That means satisfying the NEU’s ‘five tests’, including a comprehensive testing and tracing system. These are reasonable and achievable.

But this government cares more about big business than it does about the lives of school staff, students and parents. This mad rush, to get everyone in on 1 June regardless, is a result of the government’s mishmash, reckless, uncaring and two-faced strategy.

Scotland and Wales aren’t reopening. Why are we in England? It’s childcare for big business. This is simply Johnson appeasing the bosses. Asking us to be ‘heroes’ – cannon fodder for their version of war.

I’ve been having reps’ meetings. I’ve been meeting endless union groups in the schools – groups that have never had reps now have four or five.

One trust of privately run ‘academy’ schools published a letter saying they wouldn’t open till 8 June after meeting the union group. That shows they can be pressured, but it’s still too early. We have to keep going.

As I say to my members, the reason we have trade unions is in part because of appalling working conditions in Victorian times, when people died in cotton mill machines and so on. Because of the trade unions, we now have at least some health and safety laws.

Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 protects our members from the unsafe conditions they would face if they went back. That law allows workers to judge that premises are unsafe, and to refuse to go in.

And we will use that law. We will make sure our members are clear on what it says, and as a union we will support our members to take that step.

The government is also ignoring the strength of feeling among parents, the families who bring the kids to the gate. I’ve been invited to attend parents’ meetings on this crisis. At the first meeting there were 100 on the Zoom call and another 170 in the ‘waiting room’.

Hundreds are now contacting the parents’ group. Parents are eager to show their unhappiness and concern about the call to return.

One said we should put posters up on school gates and fences, so parents know others feel the same and feel confident in holding their kids back. There is also going to be discussion on what safe protest actions parents can carry out to publicly demonstrate their concerns.

In Newham, trade unionists and socialists have carried out several safe, socially distanced car cavalcades and standing protests against the deaths and the cuts, for example. Standing two metres apart outside is safer than it would be in any of those classrooms!

We understand the headteachers are having to draw up risk assessments for reopening. Those risk assessments may be very useful in the future, when it is safe. But at this time, none of those risk assessments can be acceptable, because the government hasn’t met the NEU’s five tests.

They said they were going to test for the virus right from the beginning. That’s still not up! No teacher or school worker in Newham can just go somewhere to be tested on a weekly basis.

There must also be an agreement that no vulnerable person, or anyone living with a vulnerable person, can come back into the workplace. The government has blurred the higher and lesser categories for vulnerable people.

One of my primary schools passed a motion calling on Newham’s Labour mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz, to say the schools won’t reopen, like over a dozen other councils have. She has so far refused to do that. She wants the unions to sign a joint statement with her – I’m not doing it unless she says schools will stay shut.

United action can defeat Tories’ dangerous school plan

Martin Powell-Davies, Socialist Party national committee and NEU member

In refusing to back down from his plans for primary schools to open more widely in England on 1 June, Johnson has shown complete disregard for public health. But a firm stand by trade unions, schools and parents can force the Tories back.

For the Tories, getting the youngest children back to school was only ever about one thing – putting childcare in place for employers to be able to bully working parents back to work.

By correctly questioning the lack of scientific basis for government decision-making, the trade unions, led by the National Education Union, had hoped they could convince Johnson to reconsider.

The BMA and the Independent SAGE group have both given backing to the NEU’s insistence that, to end lockdown safely, the government has to first make sure proper systems for testing, tracing and isolation of new Covid outbreaks are securely in place.

But the Cummings crisis has shown that Johnson and the cabal around him are prepared to brazenly justify the unjustifiable. On schools, they are going to ignore both medical and trade union opinion to try and force through a rapid end to the lockdown, come what may.

The Tories also hope to show they can brush aside trade union opposition and score a victory ahead of the even bigger battles to come over jobs, cuts and incomes as the economic crisis unfolds.

The school staff unions, backed by parents and trade unionists, have to make sure Johnson’s gamble does not come off. The movement has a real opportunity to show how, by standing firm together, the Tories can be beaten back, for the sake of all in our communities.

Johnson knows his plans will be opposed. He is prepared to accept a slower return to secondary schools where unions are traditionally better organised and childcare for older children is also less of a priority.

He has also had to recognise that many primary schools will also phase in pupil return more gradually than he wanted.

However, he is planning on a critical mass opening quickly, and then others following suit, all before it is safe to do so. A united battle is needed to make sure his plan fails. Individual staff and union groups must not be left to fight alone.

A clear national call to action needs to be issued. All the school unions must make clear that the necessary public health measures are not in place and that, therefore, no school can be a safe workplace to open more widely.

School staff are ready to respond to such a clear call to action. The NEU’s slogans of “only when it’s safe” and “not until the ‘five tests’ are met” have been embraced and understood both by school staff and more widely amongst large numbers of parents and the wider school community.

Anyone who understands education knows that social distancing cannot be securely maintained in a primary school and the steps that will have to be taken, such as removing play areas and keeping infants apart, will be emotionally damaging too.

Union reps must insist on risk assessments that confirm schools have taken every step that they can to minimise risk. But, even then, wider opening will not yet be safe because the critical actions that need to be taken are outside schools’ control.

Until the government acts to put tracking and testing in place and get infection rates lower, opening schools more widely threatens to create a deadly ‘second wave’ of the virus.

As the last few months have shown, it will be the families who already suffer the most disadvantage and discrimination that will be hit worst of all.

Those arguments have been heard and passed on through union and parents’ meetings. Now they have to be translated into action.

The NEU has recruited thousands of new members and hundreds of new workplace representatives in the last days and weeks. Huge online meetings, the biggest 20,000-strong, have been held.

They have heard NEU leaders correctly explaining that safeguarding and health and safety legislation put obligations on employers to protect both staff and the wider community, obligations that cannot be met when the union’s ‘five tests’ have not yet been met.

They have also heard how sections 44 and 100 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 give protection to staff who reasonably believe that they would be in danger if they returned to an unsafe workplace.

Now those rights need to be urgently confirmed in messages to every member. Unions should advise members to meet online together in workplace groups and across employers to discuss their legal rights.

Reps must make clear that unions will be backing members who refuse to enter an unsafe workplace and call on heads to refuse to implement Johnson’s reckless plans.

Let the Tories bluster about ‘illegality’. Legislation gives far greater rights to staff than the rights claimed by Dominic Cummings in his trips around the country – and the public will understand that too.

But, as ever, the best defence for workers is acting together. School staff right across England should, as one, refuse to put themselves in danger.

The whole of the trade union movement must back the school staff unions. Every Local Authority must be lobbied to demand it opposes the unsafe operation of schools in its area. Unions can also encourage their members to help organise parent opposition too.

Union branches, trade union councils and community groups should follow the lead set in areas like Leicestershire, Coventry and Newham where big meetings for parents have already been held. Parental campaigns can bolster the confidence of schools and their staff to stand firm and put pressure on elected politicians to do so as well.

Yes, the stakes are high. But a firm response can make the Tories regret they chose to have this battle instead of putting safety first.