Monday 21 December 2020

No full school return in January. Prepare action ballots to ensure staff and community safety.

The Government has been gambling with public health by insisting schools remain fully open, despite their own official data showing rapidly rising rates of infection in school-aged children, particularly from the new, more infectious, Covid variant. Their failures have resulted in a public health crisis and further lockdown measures. Now they must change course.

The Scottish Government has already announced that schools will stay closed at the start of next term in January. Westminster must urgently make the same decision for schools in England, and across all sectors.

The National Education Union has called for the first two weeks of learning to be online for all but key worker and vulnerable children. That fortnight should then be used to genuinely plan and negotiate with staff and their unions about what is really required to prevent packed, poorly ventilated classrooms spreading the Covid variant, and to keep schools and communities safe until vaccinations have been carried out widely – not least for education staff.

That means:

* properly resourcing online learning so that schools can operate with smaller, safer, class sizes, including ensuring parents are paid if they need to stay off work to provide childcare. 

* withdrawing plans to introduce mass testing on the cheap and instead to recruit and train additional staff who can make sure that the tests are carried out as reliably as possible. 

* fully maintaining isolation protocols, certainly until regular testing is fully and reliably in place.

* making sure staff and students at greater clinical risk can safely work from home.

* recognising the strain on school staff and managing the demands being put upon them.

We can’t let the Government continue to fail. Before Christmas, the EiS teaching union in Scotland won big majorities in consultative polls on industrial action to ensure safety in the worst hit areas. Every school union should be making plans to do the same after Christmas – so that the Government has to take notice.

See below for an interview I have given tonight to RT:


Wednesday 16 December 2020

Covid testing in schools - why school staff don't trust the Government's plans

There was anger last week when the Government announced extra testing for schoolchildren but only in parts of London, Essex and Kent, rather than in every region. So you might think school staff would now be pleased to be hearing that the Government are thinking of delaying school opening by a week in the New Year to prepare schools for a roll-out of mass testing of staff and students? 

However, most staff have very mixed feelings about the Government's plans and their real intentions. Let me explain why:

First of all, there's disbelief in Greenwich and elsewhere that the DfE could jump from issuing legal threats to bully schools to stay open at the end of this term - to saying they might stay closed at the start of next term!

Secondly, the timing. Schools are about to close for Xmas and New Year - so we're expected to just change the plans for the first week back overnight? 

Thirdly, any delay wouldn't be the DfE recognising the need for a post-Xmas 'circuit-break' but just to enforce their plans to make schools administer the tests on the cheap - just another job added to existing workload.

Fourthly, school staff aren't trained testers and pushing swabs up children's tender nostrils is not as simple as it sounds (as anyone who has self-administered a swab knows). Nor might it be safe.

Fifthly, the lateral flow tests are dubious in their accuracy, as the BMJ has explained in detail.

And last, but by no means least, the testing appears not to be added alongside existing isolation protocols but as a way of telling schools that staff and children would no longer need to isolate. Yet there's no proper research that's been provided on the risks that creates - and no certainty that it actually stops schools being centres of transmission.

At least, however, it would be an(other) effective admission that schools are NOT "Covid-safe" and shows why unions, such as the EiS members voting to support industrial action ballots  in Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire, are right to be trusting their own strength, rather than this Government, to provide genuine health and safety for staff and school communities.

UPDATE: See further advice over the dangers of giving consent to LFT tests instead of self-isolation here.

Saturday 12 December 2020

Win regular mass testing of children and staff in every region

The contradictory chaos at the heart of the Government’s Covid policies has been brought into sharp focus by the sudden announcement that mass testing of secondary school students is going to be rushed out in North-East London and parts of Essex and Kent.

There’s no question that regular mass testing of school students and staff is needed. It’s a demand that the NEU raised as one of our ‘5 tests’ for Covid-safety in schools back in May. But why is mass testing only being considered now and why only in these few areas?

Taken from the ONS Infection Survey, 11-12-20

The waves of Covid transmission have been peaking in different areas at different times. A few weeks ago, infection rates in the North of England were much higher than in the South. However, official statistics show that it’s now London where rates are rising fastest, particularly amongst school-aged children. For example, Basildon, Medway and Waltham Forest are all reporting infection rates of over 500/100,000 in 10-14 year olds.

Like some Tory ‘King Canute’, Matt Hancock hopes rushing out mobile testing units can stop the rising tide washing over London and the South-East. But, once again, instead of a properly resourced plan, he’s resorting to half-baked measures.

The practicalities of making sure that schoolchildren in the targeted areas are all tested are far from straightforward. No doubt exhausted and overstretched school staff will again be expected to try and help bring some order to Tory chaos. Testing this late in term also means that children testing positive will then have to self-isolate with their families over the Christmas period that the Government has supposedly ‘saved’ from Covid restrictions.

Worse, Ministers still can’t bring themselves to admit to what is now surely blindingly obvious. If school-aged children are so widely infected, insisting that parents send them in to classes of thirty in badly-ventilated classrooms inevitably means that schools will be acting as a significant driver of wider community transmission. Sadly, of course, that means a driver of Covid-related deaths too.

Many schools have been so badly hit by Covid outbreaks that they are already stretched to breaking point through staff and student absences. Yet, on the same day these mass tests were being announced, one such badly hit school in one of the targeted London boroughs was ordered to withdraw its plans to manage the situation by finishing term with just remote learning.

As parents and staff in the hard-hit North have understandably pointed out with anger, Government failure to organise widespread mass testing in other regions has already left thousands of families vulnerable. Some of their children will have been returning home from school untested, probably without symptoms, but still infectious. When, for example, will mass testing be rolled out in Hartlepool, where infection rates amongst 10-14 year-olds are also over 500/100,000?

But Government failure mustn’t be allowed to stoke regional divisions. Regular mass testing of children and staff should be happening in every area. 

The risk of transmission should also be being kept down through a properly resourced plan for safer reduced class sizes, with some children being supported to learn from home on a rota basis where necessary, certainly in those areas with the highest infection rates. Parents and carers who are left without childcare should be paid in full if they have to remain at home as a result.

Of course, these demands aren’t new. Trade unions and parent campaigns have been calling for action to reduce infection risks in schools for months. 

Instead of just pleading with Ministers who refuse to listen, what’s needed is action to make sure they are forced to see sense.

The NEU should follow the lead taken by the EIS teaching trade union in Glasgow and prepare members for ballots for strike action where employers continue to refuse to act to protect health and safety.