Thursday 26 August 2021

NEU officers and reps need firm advice on Covid-19 for the new term

National NEU too slow in issuing updated advice for reps

In July, the NEU issued a Covid-19 update, assuring members and leaders that new advice would be published before the start of the new term. Reps were also advised to remind their leadership that risk assessments will need to be revised in time for the new year. But, with some schools and colleges already open after the summer, as yet no new advice has been issued. Instead, the latest NEU press releases lack the clarity and firmness that its reps and members need.

Today's National Union’s “Back to School” press release rightly states that the Government’s announcement of £25 million to procure CO2 monitors for schools is an admission that risks remain, but that they “will not arrive soon enough, and only diagnose problems not solve them”. But, if that’s the case, then NEU reps need clear advice on actions their schools should be taking right now.

Scotland already shows that infection rates will rise once schools reopen

Staff, school students, and their families understandably want the new academic year to be a return to ‘normality’ without the stress and disruption of the last eighteen months. But the transmissibility of the Delta variant, and the failure of Government to invest, means that sadly won’t be the case. Just as in September 2020, we will be returning to the same poorly ventilated, closely packed classrooms operating throughout the day, prime conditions for spreading an airborne virus”. (Why union groups must insist that schools reduce Covid risk’, 20/8/21) 

Since I posted that warning last week, news from Scotland has confirmed how the reopening of schools after the summer break is inevitably going to drive up infection rates again. In July, Independent SAGE had linked a decline in Scottish infection rates to the earlier start to their school holidays. But now, young people are mixing in schools again, 'fuelling' record case numbers according to BBC Scotland. Tellingly, around a third of the new cases have been in the under-19s age group.

Does this matter when so many adults are vaccinated? Absolutely it does. Yes, vaccinations have helped ensure that hospitalisation and death rates are much lower than they would have been, but protection is not guaranteed. A proportion of our diverse population will still suffer serious illness, and more again from long Covid, especially those who have existing conditions that leave them at greater risk. Even a small percentage of a large population of vaccinated adults - or unvaccinated children – still equates to significant numbers.

In the absence of National NEU advice (*see update below), here’s some suggested advice for risk assessments

Just as previously in the pandemic, schools have a responsibility to assess the ongoing risks from Covid-19, and then to take steps to mitigate them. In my earlier post, I outlined three key areas to consider for the new term:

(1) - Ventilation and Face Coverings

(2) - Isolation, Outbreaks and Contact Tracing

(3) - Staff and families at greatest risk

I have now compiled more detail on the above as suggestions for NEU Officers and Reps to raise urgently with their schools and employers. The advice - posted below - can be downloaded as a double-sided A4 briefing here.

Together with the workplace representatives of recognised trade unions, schools and colleges must act to reduce the ongoing risks from Covid-19:

(1) - Ventilation and Face Coverings

“Good ventilation is now widely accepted as being key to preventing the spread of Covid” (Paul Whiteman, General Secretary of the NAHT, joint union press release, 17 August 2021)

The DfE have belatedly announced that they will be procuring £25million of CO2 monitors over the next term but, for now, few schools and colleges will have them in place. Even then, monitoring is only the start. Action then needs to be taken where poor ventilation is identified:

1.    Conduct an immediate audit of all classrooms and workspaces to assess the adequacy of ventilation and to set out the steps that can be taken to improve air flow in each case based on the HSE advice on ventilation & air conditioning during the Covid-19 pandemic.

2.    To assist this urgent risk assessment, rather than waiting solely for DfE promises, an initial supply of portable CO2 monitors should be purchased immediately by LAs/MATs.

3.    As was mandated for the start of term in Scotland, face coverings must similarly be worn by staff and students in secondary classrooms.

4.    Staff working in circumstances where there are particular risks, such as from children known to spit or bite, where children require intimate care or where staff may need to administer first aid, must be provided with appropriate PPE, including correctly graded face masks.

5.    Across all sectors, an assessment of other transmission risks, such as in corridors and communal areas, staffrooms, and at lunch and break times, should also be made, and steps taken to mitigate risks. Staff meetings should continue to be held online at present.

(2) - Isolation, Outbreaks and Contact Tracing

“[DfE guidance] appears to suggest that everyday contact in education settings …  is not going to be deemed close contact. This increases the risk that infections will go undetected, subsequently leading to more disruption and illness with the virus spreading more widely across schools”. (Letter from UNISON to Gavin Williamson, 18 August 2021)

If settings and employers only put in place the steps set out in the DfE’s latest operational guidance and contingency framework, Covid transmission will inevitably occur, leading to more disruption to education and infections amongst staff, students and our wider communities.

1.    The PHE guidance on actions to be taken by a ‘close contact’ should also be applied to unvaccinated young people who are below the age of 18 years 6 months in educational settings. They should NOT “continue to attend school as normal” as the DfE guidance advises but should “stay at home and self-isolate” as with other unvaccinated persons.

2.    Schools/Colleges should NOT rely only on a positive case or their parent to specifically identify close contacts as suggested in the DfE guidance. Instead, they should continue to identify close contacts on the following basis:

    anyone who lives in the same household as another person who has COVID-19 symptoms or has tested positive for COVID-19

    anyone who has had any of the following types of contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19:

o   face-to-face contact including being coughed on or having a face-to-face conversation within one metre

o   been within one metre for one minute or longer without face-to-face contact

o   been within 2 metres of someone for more than 15 minutes (either as a one-off contact, or added up together over one day)

    A person may also be a close contact if they have travelled in the same vehicle as a person who has tested positive for COVID-19.

3. Schools/Colleges SHOULD make plans to take “extra action if the number of positive cases substantially increases” as the DfE guidance suggests but SHOULD NOT wait for the DfE’s suggested thresholds – such as 10% of pupils and staff in a class – to do so. Those plans should include remote learning with funding to cover additional staffing/supply costs in order to manage the resulting workload. These are costs we must also all demand the DfE meets.

(3) - Staff and families at greatest risk

“School staff, some of whom will not be double vaccinated, or are in a vulnerable group, are also in some cases still at risk of serious illness”. (Joint Union letter to Gavin Williamson, 17 August 2021)

The absence of mitigations and the DfE’s reckless guidance will be causing real concern to staff and students who are at greater risk to serious illness, as well as to those who live with family members who face those risks too.

1.    Every member of staff who believes they, or a person they live with, are at a higher risk of illness from Covid-19 should be provided with an individual risk assessment.

2.    Individual risk assessments should list the protective measures that will be put in place to address those risks. These should include being able to work from home and funds should be set aside to cover for additional staffing/supply costs required to meet those needs.

3.    Schools/Colleges and employers should advocate the benefits to 16-17 year olds, as well as to adults, of getting vaccinated and drive for the widest uptake of vaccinations as possible.

4.    All children aged 12 to 15 years eligible for a vaccine – either those with a condition that means they’re at high risk or who live with someone who is more likely to get infections should be included in this drive too.

*Update: National NEU advice

After this post was published, offical joint union advice was issued on the NEU website - you can read it here.

I remain concerned that the advice lacks the firmness and clarity needed. For example, rather than clearly stating that unions are calling for face coverings to still be worn by staff and students in secondary classrooms, it only states that "secondary settings should ... urgently consider the case for continuing to require their wearing". It also fails to recommend that 'close contacts' isolate, as I have done above.

The joint union advice also links to some useful detailed guidance on ventilation and on individual risk assessments for those at higher risk.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you Martin for very timely, clear advice. After a frustrating meeting today with the LA - who are only offering heads in Newham a PPT version of the DfE advice - and no practical advice from the National Union,as we hurtle towards the return to school,I will be sharing your advice with all Newham reps to provide urgent support in raising Covid safety mitigations and then also using it to inform our District's Covid Safety demands in schools and with the LA at the first Reps meeting of the new term.
Louise Cuffaro, Secretary Newham NEU