The stand taken by staff and parents has helped make sure most primary schools in England have failed to open as widely as the Tories had intended. And now the government has been forced to backtrack on plans for all primary pupils to return to school before the end of summer.
Under pressure, the government has had to accept that there is no way to cram even more primary children into the same school building without increasing group sizes. Even the Tories knew they couldn’t get away with that!
Survey results from the National Education Union (NEU) estimate that 44% of schools did not open further at all on 1 June, with the north west having the lowest rate at only 8%. About a fifth (21%) opened to some more year groups but less than the four asked for by the government – nursery, reception, year one and year six. However, about a third (35%) did.
And according to the Department for Education, only one in four eligible pupils returned.
The National Education Union’s insistence that schools cannot open safely unless their ‘five tests’ are met has been central to forcing the Tories back. And those tests are still far from met.
The ‘R’ rate seems to be rising and calculated to be above the critical 1.0 figure already in the north west and south west.
Test results often still take days to be returned – seriously undermining tracing and isolation procedures that rely on speedy intervention before more people are infected.
The contact tracing arrangements themselves are still far from working reliably – and might not be until September.
If a positive result is reported by a child, parent or staff member, then there must be testing and closure of the whole school and reopening only when unions and parents consider it safe.
Few schools are providing PPE, leaving pupils and staff in the farcical situation where they are expected to wear masks on the bus to school, but take them off when they are in class!
The main guideline being followed to minimise the risk of virus transmission is the setting up of individual ‘bubbles’ of 15 or fewer children who should stay together with the same staff. But with physical distancing impossible to consistently achieve with younger children, it’s almost inevitable that if one child brings the coronavirus into that ‘bubble’, then the remaining children, and their staff, may well be infected.
Too many schools are putting staff under pressure to work when they feel themselves, or their relatives, to be at risk. Where schools refuse to allow staff to work from home, then this must not be left as an individual issue.
Unions as a whole must declare that this refusal means the school has failed to acceptably account for risk overall, and the press and public alerted. Communities on the march against racism need to know which local schools are refusing to protect black, Asian and minority ethnic staff who feel at risk.
Any attempt to declare that the ‘five tests’ have been achieved or that a safe wider return can now be supported by unions would be a huge mistake.
Let’s expose the hypocrisy of a government that has cut school budgets over years, but now suddenly pretends to be interested in ‘disadvantage’.
Yet they are ending free school meal vouchers, while still failing to deliver on their promises to provide additional laptops and routers for families who need them to access online learning. They are forcing the low-paid back to work, instead of guaranteeing the wages of those who have no access to childcare.
United opposition would have been easier to achieve if the NEU had clearly declared that, in the absence of the five tests, no school was safe to return to.
But the struggle to defend staff and community safety has to continue, even if it now has to be school-by-school, area-by-area. Staff must continue to be supported to assert their rights to either refuse to return, or, once experience exposes the serious danger they face, to leave an unsafe workplace.
For the safety of our colleagues and our school communities, let’s continue to organise around a clear and principled stand, and insist that safety must come first.