Promoted by David Beale, 36 Pleasant View, Withnell, Chorley PR6 8SE on behalf of Martin Powell-Davies of TUSC.

Friday 20 August 2021

Why union groups must insist that schools reduce Covid risk

Please also read further updated advice from 26 August on this blog here: 

We all want ‘normality’ but Covid risks are still far from ‘normal’

“We are heading into a new school year with infection rates 25 times higher, and hospitalisation rates 10 times higher, than this point last year and with most mitigations removed” (Letter from UNISON to Gavin Williamson, 18 August 2021)

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. Few young people have been vaccinated. Without mitigations in place, an acceleration of transmission in schools, and then back into school communities, is inevitable.

Relying on vaccinations alone is not a sufficient strategy

“Staff who are fully vaccinated are still at risk of catching the virus and potentially developing Long Covid, which is already afflicting tens of thousands of school staff” (Joint Union letter to Gavin Williamson, 17 August 2021)

Yes, vaccinations are certainly making a difference. They have helped make sure that hospitalisation and death rates are much lower than they would have been given our ongoing high infection rates. But protection is not guaranteed. A proportion of our diverse population will still suffer serious illness, especially those who have existing conditions that leave them at greater risk. 

Death and hospitalisation numbers have been rising since June. Even a small percentage of a large population of vaccinated adults - or unvaccinated children – still equates to significant numbers. These are risks that schools have a responsibility to assess – and then to seek to mitigate.

Insist on reducing risk (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)

Education unions have called on the DfE to urgently invest in ventilation measures in our schools, just like education authorities in countries like Germany and the USA have already done. The DfE have since 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. 

Having correctly identified the risk, unions now need to insist schools act to protect against airborne transmission. If CO2 monitors and air filters are not in place, the simplest and most effective mitigation is the wearing of face coverings in classrooms. As US ventilation expert Professor Shelly Miller advises “universal masking without portable HEPA air cleaners will do more to slow the spread of Delta variant than portable HEPA air cleaners without universal masking”.

Insist on reducing risk (2) - Isolation, Outbreaks and Contact Tracing

“[DfE guidance] appears to suggest that everyday contact in education settings – even when sitting alongside a positive case – 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)

Everyone wants disruption to education to stop. But declaring that close contacts under 18½ don’t have to self-isolate won’t stop disruption. Nor will failing to carry out contact tracing in schools, and nor will waiting until 5 individuals in a class test positive for COVID-19 before taking any action. Yet this is exactly what the latest DfE guidance advises, without providing any scientific justification.

As Unison’s letter to Gavin Williamson correctly warns, following DfE guidance simply means that infections will go undetected and transmission will spread, leading to more disruption and illness.  But again, having correctly identified the risk, unions now need to insist schools have in place safe systems for isolation, contact tracing and, when necessary, staffing to support online learning.

Insist on reducing risk (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 ‘schools COVID-19 operational 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. The guidance does at least state that “no pupil should be denied education on the grounds of whether they are, or are not, wearing a face covering” and certainly no school management should prevent the voluntary wearing of masks.

Unions have made clear throughout the pandemic that high risk or vulnerable staff have a right to an individual risk assessment and protective measures being put in place to address those risks, including being able to work from home. But individual union members can best be backed by the strength of the collective union group insisting on an overall risk assessment that protects both individuals at greater risk as well as the health, safety and welfare of staff and students as a whole.

Download this advice as an A4 double-sided document here.

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