The government has a campaign to persuade parents that it will be safe to send children back to schools in England in September, following the return in Scotland on 11 August.
Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Advisor to the UK government, says, reasonably, that it is important that all children are in school and that “the chances of children dying from Covid-19 are incredibly small.”
Whitty added that there are no risk-free options but that children would suffer much more from long-term health and mental health problems by remaining out of school than from dangers associated from Covid-19. That is also true.
Whitty also says: “There is [probably] much less transmission from children to adults than adults to adults.” Again this is probably true, although older teenagers seem more likely to transmit than smaller children.
Nevertheless, there is some risk. On 24 August NHS Tayside reported that at a school in Dundee for students with additional support needs, 21 workers had tested positive, plus two students. All households connected to the school are in self-isolation for two weeks.
I am a teacher in my late 50s. All the students I teach are 16-18, and by November I will be teaching 30 kids, some of whom will be coughing and sneezing, in closed classrooms, five hours a day. I will have to get to school on over-full public transport, and there are 150 adult staff at the Academy whom I will mix with as I work.
If I were just a narrow trade unionist I might say: the main issue is the safety of union members and myself, so let’s close the schools (or open them only on a limited basis). But I’m a socialist first and foremost and I recognise there are other concerns beyond my own immediate interests.
School staff fulfil a key role in society. We are an essential service. We need to work just as NHS staff and supermarket workers do, because the kids need us to do our jobs.
If I was a socialist with a Stalinist-tinged propensity to shout the opposite to anything the state says I would be demanding schools shut, because Whitty and the Tories say they should open. Socialist Worker is a good example — with the caveat that their loud-mouthed rhetoric is faked and conceals a right-wing practice inside the school workers’ union, the NEU, where they suck up to the central leadership.
So we need to reopen the schools, while making them as safe as possible for everyone, and only accept closures as a last resort to deal with spiralling, out-of-control, Covid spikes. School unions must demand that vulnerable staff and children should not be expected to be in school. “Vulnerable” should be defined generously, and vulnerable staff should be paid their normal wage; vulnerable kids should be educated on-line or in separate areas.
All contracted-out school services should be brought in-house. Partly this is to ensure adequate cleaning in schools (many cleaning services are privatised and the private cleaning companies are notorious for cutting corners). We also need to ensure all staff can be confident that if they need to self-isolate they are able to do so because they will receive occupational sick pay, not statutory sick pay. We must insist on regular temperature checks for all staff and children, regular testing, covid-distancing. Staggered starts might well make sense, too.
The Covid crisis is a problem where staff, kids, school bosses and the state apparently have some common interests. No doubt no-one wants Covid outbreaks in schools. But we also know that bosses cut corners and union leaderships are conservative. In the NEU we need to demand the union makes loud propaganda for the use of Health and Safety legislation (Section 44 of the 1996 Employment Protection Act, etc.) which will allow school groups to take action to stamp out poor Health and Safety practice by sloppy managements.
We cannot trust Head Teachers to take adequate safety precautions. One of the saddest moments in my life as a trade unionist has been to witness the panic amongst reps and activists across my London Borough as Johnson announced school reopenings in June. The national union’s political-lobbying strategy fell apart at this point and reps filled our NEU WhatsApp chat with demands for the Mayor to step in and save us or for school heads to “do the right thing” and refuse to open schools.
There was no panic at my school, where the union is strong. The lesson is: the only people we can trust is ourselves. Organise to ensure safety at your school and take action if you need to.
School union organisations should set up health and safety committees to monitor and instruct managements. Where possible they should draw in student reps, too.
Finally, it might well make sense for the union to organise a national ballot on health and safety issues in schools. We do not know what the winter will bring, and the state’s Test and Trace scheme is a part-privatised scandal. So we might well need the ability to take national action, and a ballot signals intent.