Sunday, 24 May 2020

Only when it's safe - for mental as well as physical health

In Cumbria yesterday, parents and staff met together in an online meeting to discuss why it is not yet safe to start opening schools to more children. We all left the meeting with a greater understanding and determination to protect the health of staff and students - and that this includes their mental and emotional health as well as the direct risks of coronavirus.

Cumbria is far more than Lake District scenery. It includes towns with high levels of deprivation, including Barrow, the town with the highest rate of reported Covid-19 cases of all. It's also the town where Wendy Jacobs, a primary Headteacher, became an early victim to the virus in March. When a colleague has died, it brings home the fact that the dangers facing staff are real.

Another primary Headteacher explained how she had taken a decision to close her Cumbria school in mid-March, when a child was showing signs of symptoms. Of course, without the community testing that has to be in place for the lockdown to safely end, they still don't know for sure.

But, just because a school is closed to most children, it certainly doesn't mean staff have been taking it easy - or have been 'lazy' as a local MP disgracefully put it. Far from it, as elsewhere, her staff have been working flat out to support their pupils, those in their Hub and those at home. That isn't just teachers, it's support staff, office staff and cleaners too.

Of course Heads and staff worry about the welfare of youngsters, especially those for whom school provides some stability in difficult lives. The Government pretend to share concern about disadvantaged pupils but it has been Heads that have had to act on the fiasco of Free School Meal voucher provision, while the pledge to provide additional laptops for poorer families has been just another broken Government promise.

Schools have stayed open for small numbers precisely to support the children who need help the most. But everyone understood that opening more widely now, especially to the youngest children who most needed physical comforting and were least likely to understand social distancing, was too great a risk. As the BMA, the Independent SAGE group and the NEU's '5 tests' have all made clear, that has to wait until infection rates are lower and reliable test, trace and isolate systems are in place.

Test/trace/isolate - the 'crucial factor' according to 'Independent SAGE' advice

Reading the DfE guidance, it's clear that it was put together by people who have no experience of teaching infants, by advisers who think five and six year-olds learn by sitting separated at their desks all day. A reception teacher explained what a return under this guidance would mean in his school - no sand-tray, no dressing up, no soft toys, no wooden toys, no comfy reading area, bookshelves closed off from children's hands.

Parents need to know that their young children will not be returning to a normal classroom environment. It will be confusing and upsetting. Yet if they need a hug from an adult, those adults are meant to be keeping their distance from them. That's why a parent who works in mental health rightly explained that a return to school in these conditions isn't just risking a 'second spike' of Covid-19, it's also going to risk emotional well-being of staff and children too.

The vital emotional support provided by primary education has been lost under the imposed pressure of national testing and league tables. When schools do return safely, parents and staff need to demand that we don't just go back to what we had before but to a 'recovery curriculum' that makes welfare and well-being a priority.

The meeting agreed that schools should not go back in greater numbers until the NEU '5 tests' have been met. Regrettably, instead of giving a clear lead advising against opening on 1 June, Cumbria County Council's letter to parents says they are leaving it up to individual schools and school clusters to make their own decisions. That could leave a chaotic situation for parents and staff where one child's school is opening further, while another's stays closed.

That's why we agreed to call on parents to keep up pressure on their MPs and councillors, to also write to their Headteachers to bolster their confidence to put safety first and to contact other parents to explain the dangers of their children returning before it's safe to do so.

One useful paragraph in the Cumbria County Council letter states "the government have said that for the duration of the current situation, parents and carers will not be penalised if they decide not to send their children back to school.  So the final decision about whether or not your child attends school is yours". That should give parents confidence to keep their children at home if they are able to do so.

Of course, many parents will be under pressure from their employers to be back in work, now that 'childcare' is supposedly back in place. As everyone recognises, that is all this reckless rush to get more children back in school from 1 June is really all about. That's why, as one parent put it, it's the united actions of school staff through their unions that are key in protecting the safety of staff and their school communities.

We'll be meeting together again on 6th June to see what more needs to be done to oppose a reckless return for more pupils in Cumbria schools before the '5 tests' are in place.

Monday, 18 May 2020

A wider return of pupils on 1 June cannot be safe - let's refuse to put ourselves and our communities in danger

The Government are on course for a direct confrontation with school staff and their unions over their plans for a much wider opening of primary schools on 1st June. It’s vital that unions now give a decisive lead to ensure that, rather than members feeling they have to accept putting themselves, their families and communities in danger, it is Johnson that has to step back instead.

On Monday evening (May 18th) as many as 20,000 individual NEU members logged in to a ‘Zoom’ meeting to hear their Joint General Secretaries explain how members can resist a reckless return to unsafe schools. As JGS Kevin Courtney explained, any agreement on safety would first depend on:
1) The Government publishing its modelling justifying that their plans won’t be a risk to public health – and that advice standing up to wider scientific interrogation;
2) Testing, tracing and isolation systems being properly in place;
3) Infection rates to be at levels low enough to allow those systems to be able to operate successfully;
4) Local checklist compliance to confirm that social distancing, PPE, protection for vulnerable staff and their relatives, alongside other workplace requirements, were all satisfactorily risk assessed.

There’s absolutely no way that these conditions are going to be met by 1st June, or indeed any time soon.

It’s clear that there’s still hope amongst the union leaderships that the Government will be persuaded by force of argument alone to rethink their proposals. But there’s too much at stake for that. Force of numbers will prove the strongest argument – and the threat of a mass refusal to co-operate by staff and parents.

The members on the NEU call were correctly reassured that Section 44 and other legislation gave workers the right to refuse to work in an unsafe workplace. But the growing pressure on staff from some Headteachers and employers means that there should be no further delay in writing to every union member to inform them of those rights so that members can discuss them, and act on them, together.

Union members must meet online together in workplace groups and across employers to confirm their legal rights. A simple message must now be made loud and clear – that schools can’t possibly be safe to open further as yet and that school staff right across England should, as one, refuse to put themselves in danger.

Clarity is urgently needed. NEU reps will have struggled to keep up with tactics that have changed from an initial position of general ‘non-engagement’ with negotiations to one where reps are now being asked to go through a lengthy joint GMB/NEU/UNISON/Unite workplace safety checklist. It’s highly unlikely that many Heads will be able to adjust group sizes and other arrangements to meet those checks in full, as is needed. However, there’s a danger that some hard-nosed managers will try to split staff opposition by arguing that they have been largely met.

All reps need to understand that this local checklist is just one of the safety tests – and it’s certainly not one that can be met by 1 June in any event. Even if acceptable local arrangements are eventually agreed, there can be no guarantee of staff and community safety without government action to meet the unions’ national tests too.

With a clear national lead, and added confidence given to them by parental action too, school staff as a whole can assert their health and safety rights and force the Tories to think again.

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

DfE guidance is reckless and unsafe - refuse to open unsafe schools

On May 11th, the DfE issued advice to back up the Government's reckless announcement that they are rushing to re-open primary schools. The DfE advice is equally reckless and unsafe. Here is a summary:

By June 1st the Government intend primary schools to be open to large numbers of young pupils: ALL priority children (keyworkers and vulnerable), Nursery, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6:
Now that we have made progress in reducing the transmission of coronavirus we are encouraging all eligible children to attend - it is no longer necessary for parents of eligible children to keep them at home if they can. From the week commencing 1 June at the earliest, we will be asking primary schools to welcome back children in nursery, reception, year 1 and year 6, alongside priority groups

Before the end of June, they hope to have ALL primary children back: 
Our ambition is to bring all primary year groups back to school before the summer holidays, for a month if feasible

This is driven by childcare, so employers can instruct their employees to be in work, not by education or health concerns:
Children returning to educational and childcare settings in greater numbers will also allow more families to return to work.

They claim to be basing this on science – they are not. They stress that children are less likely to have symptoms – which is true – but are silent about how children spread the virus to each other and adults:
This decision is based on the latest scientific advice. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies advising the Government has a high degree of confidence that the severity of the disease in children is lower than in adults and a moderately high degree of confidence that children aged up to 11 are less susceptible to it. (last sentence taken from the accompanying DfE Press Release)

They accept that PPE can be beneficial in other very similar indoor circumstances – but assert that it is not required in schools. There is no justification for this contradictory advice:
Wearing a face covering or face mask in schools or other education settings is not recommended. Face coverings may be beneficial for short periods indoors where there is a risk of close social contact with people you do not usually meet and where social distancing and other measures cannot be maintained, for example on public transport or in some shops. This does not apply to schools or other education settings. Schools and other education or childcare settings should therefore not require staff, children and learners to wear face coverings.

They assert that anyone living with a vulnerable adult (defined as aged 70 or over, pregnant, with chronic diseases etc) should be in school:
If a child, young person or a member of staff lives with someone who is clinically vulnerable (but not clinically extremely vulnerable), including those who are pregnant, they can attend their education or childcare setting.

They admit that physical distancing is impossible in schools
We know that, unlike older children and adults, early years and primary age children cannot be expected to remain 2 metres apart from each other and staff.

They claim that transmission risk can be ‘reduced’ as long as children are kept in their groups and there is regular cleaning – but they certainly don’t say prevented. There will certainly be transmission across each group - and very probably between these groups too
It is still important to reduce contact between people as much as possible, and we can achieve that and reduce transmission risk by ensuring children, young people and staff where possible, only mix in a small, consistent group and that small group stays away from other people and groups. Public Health England (PHE) is clear that if early years settings, schools and colleges do this, and crucially if they are also applying regular hand cleaning, hygiene and cleaning measures and handling potential cases of the virus as per the advice, then the risk of transmission will be lowered.

And these groups – spreading the virus - will be as large as fifteen
For primary schools, classes should normally be split in half, with no more than 15 pupils per small group and one teacher (and, if needed, a teaching assistant). If there are any shortages of teachers, then teaching assistants can be allocated to lead a group, working under the direction of a teacher. Vulnerable children and children of critical workers in other year groups should also be split into small groups of no more than 15.

Instead of minimising social mixing, they suggest sending children to other schools
Any setting that cannot achieve these small groups at any point should discuss options with their local authority or trust. This might be because there are not enough classrooms or spaces available in the setting or because they do not have enough available teachers or staff to supervise the groups. Solutions might involve children attending a nearby school.

Their specific advice shows no understanding of the reality of schools, especially when working with the youngest year groups, and the difficulty in maintaining consistent distancing and hygiene. Far from reassuring staff and parents that safe precautions can be made, their suggestions simply confirm that schools will be unsafe:
For example:
· stagger assembly groups
· stagger break times (including lunch), so that all children are not moving around the school at the same time
· stagger drop-off and collection times
· plan parents’ drop-off and pick-up protocols that minimise adult to adult contact
· consider how to keep small groups of children together throughout the day and to avoid larger groups of children mixing
· consider how play equipment is used ensuring it is appropriately cleaned between groups of children using it, and that multiple groups do not use it simultaneously
· remove soft furnishings, soft toys and toys that are hard to clean (such as those with intricate parts)
· ensure that wherever possible children and young people use the same classroom or area of a setting throughout the day, with a thorough cleaning of the rooms at the end of the day.
· ensure that sufficient handwashing facilities are available. Where a sink is not nearby, provide hand sanitiser in classrooms and other learning environments
· clean surfaces that children and young people are touching, such as toys, books, desks, chairs, doors, sinks, toilets, light switches, bannisters, more regularly than normal
· ensure that all adults and children frequently wash their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds and dry thoroughly.
· clean their hands on arrival at the setting, before and after eating, and after sneezing or coughing
· are encouraged not to touch their mouth, eyes and nose
· use a tissue or elbow to cough or sneeze and use bins for tissue waste (‘catch it, bin it, kill it’)
· where possible, all spaces should be well ventilated using natural ventilation (opening windows) or ventilation units
· considering one-way circulation, or place a divider down the middle of the corridor to keep groups apart as they move through the setting where spaces are accessed by corridors
· ensuring that toilets do not become crowded by limiting the number of children or young people who use the toilet facilities at one time
· If class groups take staggered breaks between lessons, these areas can be shared as long as different groups do not mix (and especially do not play sports or games together)
· By seeking to prevent the sharing of stationery and other equipment where possible. Shared materials and surfaces should be cleaned and disinfected more frequently

They admit that the national test and trace programme is NOT ready – that needs to be in place BEFORE schools are re-opened, not after
The government is developing a new national test and trace programme. This will bring together an app, expanded web and phone-based contact tracing, and swab testing for those with potential coronavirus symptoms. This programme will play an important role in helping to minimise the spread of coronavirus in the future.

The advice to staff who have been working with someone who is ill is … ‘wash your hands’

If a member of staff has helped someone who was unwell with a new, continuous cough or a high temperature, they do not need to go home unless they develop symptoms themselves or the child subsequently tests positive. They should wash their hands thoroughly for 20 seconds after any contact with someone who is unwell. 

Even where there is a positively identified case within a school, testing is only ‘encouraged’ not rapidly organised on site as should take place to ensure safety:
When a child, young person or staff member develops symptoms compatible with coronavirus, they should be sent home and advised to self-isolate for 7 days. Their fellow household members should self-isolate for 14 days. All staff and students who are attending an education or childcare setting will have access to a test if they display symptoms of coronavirus, and are encouraged to get tested in this scenario.

The advice ignores the fact that tests, while essential, are also prone to ‘false negatives’.

Where the child, young person or staff member tests negative, they can return to their setting and the fellow household members can end their self-isolation.

Even where there is a wider outbreak within a school, they still want to try and keep schools open
As part of the national test and trace programme, if other cases are detected within the cohort or in the wider setting, Public Health England’s local health protection teams will conduct a rapid investigation and will advise schools and other settings on the most appropriate action to take. In some cases a larger number of other children, young people may be asked to self-isolate at home as a precautionary measure – perhaps the whole class, site or year group. Where settings are observing guidance on infection prevention and control, which will reduce risk of transmission, closure of the whole setting will not generally be necessary.

Testing is restricted to those with symptoms, ignoring the clear scientific evidence that much transmission takes place through children and adults who are not displaying obvious symptoms*:
When settings open to the wider cohort of children and young people, all those children and young people eligible to attend, and members of their households, will have access to testing if they display symptoms of coronavirus.

They advise that a risk assessment is needed – yes, but that assessment can surely only say – NOT SAFE TO OPEN

Refresh your risk assessment and other health and safety advice for children, young people and staff in light of recent government advice, identifying protective measures …
Also ensure that all health and safety compliance checks have been undertaken before opening

* Update - it has been pointed out to me that in the overall Government "Plan to Rebuild" document, there IS an admission that "those who are not at risk of significant harm themselves may pose a real risk of inadvertently infecting others" - perhaps the DfE need to take note!

Download this leaflet from

Monday, 11 May 2020

We can't go back to unsafe schools

Boris Johnson's announcement that he intends primary schools in England to re-open to Early Years, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 from the beginning of June was met with disbelief and anger by school staff and parents alike.

Primary schools fully back by end of June?
The full ‘Plan to Rebuild’ released today shows that their plans are even worse. Yes, it says the return can be ‘phased’ at first – but not for long. Just a few weeks later, they are aiming for “all primary school children to return to school before the summer for a month”. That would mean full classes and full primary schools before the end of June! 

A plan to open even for Year 6 alone was hard enough to accept when infection rates are still so high. Medical research is clear that re-opening schools now will lead to a ‘second wave’ of infections and deaths in school communities. Their reckless rush towards a full return of primary schools in a few weeks shows a callous disregard for health and safety. 

A callous disregard for health and safety
It will be impossible to stop transmission of the virus amongst young children, particularly in settings where education is so dependent on play and sharing of toys and equipment. It will be impossible to maintain consistent physical distancing in full primary schools. Parents will be bringing their children to and from school, further accelerating the transmission of the virus from children to adults and from one family to another.

Having got primary staff back, the plan is also for secondaries to start soon afterwards, starting with Years 10 and 12. Policing distancing of teenagers will also be difficult.

Schools unsafe until union tests are fully met 
If Johnson was seriously concerned about safety and the danger of a second Covid-19  ‘spike’ he wouldn’t even be contemplating such dangerous proposals. In reality, he is simply responding to the wishes of big business to make sure childcare is in place so their workforce can be called upon to generate their profits again. 

If the Tories were serious about ending the lockdown safely, they would first make sure that the tests set by the NEU and jointly by all the TUC affiliated school staff unions were met. They set out what’s needed to ensure safety in a school context – a low level of infections in the community, regular testing of staff, a “test, trace and isolate policy” fully up and running, clear protocols for isolation of adult and child contacts when positive tests are recorded, safeguards for vulnerable pupils and staff, PPE, cleaning, and all the other measures needed to minimise the risk of transmission of the virus. 

Safety reps should demand firm risk assessments drawn up on the basis of these key tests from any managers planning to implement Johnson’s plan. Staff should refuse to go into school to carry out any such preparations. 

Our message must be - we’re not going back
You don’t need a detailed assessment to know that Johnson’s plan is unsafe. It’s absolutely clear that those tests cannot be met in the next few weeks. It’s equally clear therefore that schools will not be safe environments for staff, children or parents. That’s why the message to Johnson must be clear, swift and overwhelming – we’re not going back!

Unions need to respond quickly and firmly to make sure Johnson has to back away from his unsafe plans. It’s now clear that Ministers have only been pretending to listen to union concerns while all the time weighing up their chances of enforcing a return, riding roughshod over union opposition. They mustn’t be allowed to succeed.

Correctly, the NEU Press Release in response to Johnson’s statement immediately threatened that “if schools are re-opened to blatant breaches of health and safety, we will strongly support our members who take steps to protect their pupils, their colleagues and their families”. But unions need to be clearer still – there is no ‘if’ here, Johnson’s plan clearly represents such a blatant breach. All unions must fully back members who assert their rights under section 44 of the Employment Rights Act not to return to a dangerous workplace.

Organise to jointly protect safety - and pay
But time is short. Reps and Officers must make sure urgent online meetings are organised with their members. They must explain the threat to their safety, their rights under the legislation and discuss together how to jointly protect themselves. At the same time, unions should be immediately asking reps to urgently check and update workplace membership records in preparation for industrial action that may be needed at a later date to defend union members and staff health and safety collectively.

Unions must also oppose any ending of the furlough scheme and organise support for agency workers and low-paid staff in hardship. No worker should be forced through poverty back into an unsafe workplace.

Parents, Heads and Governors too!
Parents should also organise together to defend their community safety too. Headteachers and Governors should also be making clear that they cannot assess the risks in Johnson’s proposed return as acceptable and will be refusing to implement Johnson’s wishes.

If Johnson realises that he faces the prospect  of a mass refusal to go along with his reckless plan, he can be forced to backdown.

Safety must come before ‘childminding’ -  which is all that Johnson is interested in. It is too early to start any phased return of schools. Instead, the necessary resources must first be found both to put robust testing and tracing strategies and other safety requirements in place. Until then, staff should continue to support children's education through rotas and distance learning, as schools have been doing from the start of the 'lockdown'.

● Reckless Johnson's proposals are unsafe for our staff, children and communities
● Trade Union ‘Key Tests’ can't possibly be met by June
● Unions must fully back members' right to protect their own safety
● Let's all make clear, we're not going back to unsafe schools

Download this article as a leaflet here

Sunday, 10 May 2020

NEU research confirms joint school union tests not met – not safe to start ‘phased return’

The NEU has published a summary of recent scientific papers that clearly confirm that the start of any ‘phased return’ of additional pupils to schools in the UK would be unsafe to staff and risk a ‘second wave’ of infection in our communities.

'Children may be as infectious as adults' 

Scientific knowledge of this new virus continues to grow. However, it seems increasingly certain from the latest research quoted by the NEU that children of school age do play a significant role in the transmission of the virus. As the conclusion of one German study based on an analysis of SARS-CoV-2 viral load puts it “children may be as infectious as adults”.

At a time when there are still both substantial numbers of infected individuals in our communities and, in turn, non-infected individuals susceptible to the virus, steps that increase the likelihood of transmission would risk a new increase in numbers of infections – and deaths. The NEU research also confirms that opening schools would be a particularly dangerous step to take.

Extending the numbers of children in schools will extend that risk immediately to staff, and then to families of both staff and other children’s families. Those family clusters are likely to then be places where there will be further transmission and damage to public health generally.

As another German study quoted by the NEU explains “Schools are a natural place of contact for the children and teachers … they are also a major location to spread the infection within the municipality”. Its modelling suggested that “if the population still contains a large number of susceptible individuals and sufficient infected individuals, then a selective opening of locations (such as the opening of schools) … can lead to a severe second wave of infection”.

The research also confirms that, as the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control puts it, “contact tracing in conjunction with robust testing and surveillance systems, is central to control strategies during de-escalation”. Yet those systems simply will still not be ready – certainly not comprehensively and robustly – for some time yet. 

In short, it is too early to start any ‘phased return’ of schools. Instead, the necessary resources must be found both to put the robust testing and tracing strategies in place and to continue to support children's education through other means, as teachers and schools have done from the start of the 'lockdown'.

Union tests have not been met

The research confirms that the conditions set out by the NEU in its ‘5 tests’ – and then clarified in the joint school union ‘key tests’ have not been reached.

Along with other important points, the joint letter on behalf of TUC-affiliated unions GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, NEU, UNISON and Unite rightly stated that:

·         There must be clear scientific published evidence that trends in transmission of Covid-19 will not be adversely impacted by the reopening phase and that schools are also safe to reopen. The NEU research shows that, on the contrary, the existing evidence shows the opposite.

·     There should be no increase in pupil numbers until the full rollout of the government’s “test, trace and isolate policy”, with testing targets consistently met over a number of weeks and case numbers falling consistently. Again, it is clear that no such full and consistent rollout is yet in place.

·       Governing Bodies and School leadership teams should continue to make decisions to close schools in cases of local outbreaks/upsurge in Covid-19 cases. Schools will need local data as part of the government’s testing and tracing strategy. Not only is the data not yet available, neither are clear protocols in place, as set out in the NEU’s ‘Test 4’: “to test a whole school or college when a case occurs and for isolation to be strictly followed”. These agreed protocols must be set out, resourced and agreed in any risk assessment before any increase in the numbers of pupils on site.

Unions must assess risks based on this research

The fact that children may be as infectious as adults but rarely show serious symptoms, must be taken fully into account when drawing up risk assessments.

Some returning children – and staff - will be carrying the virus without showing any symptoms such as a fever or cough. That’s why it is not sufficient to rely on detecting symptoms such as temperature readings nor to only test and isolate children or staff showing symptoms. 

As NEU ‘Test 3’ sets out, schools will need to have arranged “comprehensive access to regular testing for children and staff to ensure our schools and colleges don’t become hot spots for Covid-19”. It would be unsafe to restrict that regular testing only to those with symptoms.

In discussing the role of testing in Covid-19 control, an Imperial College report quoted in the NEU Research states, in the context of health care workers, that weekly screening of all staff, including those without symptoms, would be significant in preventing onward transmission. 

A similar approach needs to be adopted for school staff, with resources provided for trained health staff to be carrying out regular testing of all school staff. In turn, those test results should be linked to the protocols in place for contact tracing and isolation of close contacts, which might have to include school closure, as set out in the joint union letter above.

Regular testing of children may be more difficult to carry out as nasal swabbing can be uncomfortable and upsetting if carried out properly. However, children could certainly be included as social contacts of staff that test positively, and as part of contact tracing protocols that include their families. 

Of course, there are many other issues that will also need to be considered in detailed risk assessments. Because of aerosol transmission in confined spaces, it cannot be assumed that PPE is only required by staff in specialist settings. Risk assessments must also cover scheduling of regular cleaning of surfaces and hand washing, for example.

Above all, if the Government or employers proceed to try and increase pupil numbers through a ‘phased return’ leaving staff to work in unsafe conditions, then rights under Section 44 of the ERA 1996 must be understood and implemented. These rights are set out in the leaflet produced by ‘Socialist Party in Schools’, although the content is transferable for wider trade union use.