Schools are large institutions which are fully open. In most there is little possibility of social distancing and the wearing of face-coverings is impossible during lessons and difficult at other times. The virus is being spread in schools, albeit at possibly a lower rate than other institutions.
Last week in my London borough there were around 15-20 schools where Year Group bubbles had been closed, the majority with more than one Year Group closed. We have had already had two schools in the borough closing entirely for two weeks.
The situation is far worse in other parts of the country. It is only going to get worse, everywhere.
This week the NHS declared: “With immediate effect Clinical Case workers should not escalate any case who work in or attend educational settings: pre-school/nursery, primary school, secondary school or higher education (university or colleges). Single cases in these settings are no longer followed up by the level 1/local HPTs.” (their emphasis)
In my role as a union officer, I am regularly (at least every week) speaking to members, often in tears, who believe that they are endangering themselves or their loved ones by working in schools. I cannot reassure them that they are not. Risk Assessments in schools are either unrealistic and impossible to follow or insufficient to ensure safety, sometimes they mix both. Anxiety, depression and exhaustion are already rife in schools. More and more staff will not be able to cope.
Workers’ Liberty rightly believes that the emphasis is on keeping schools open. However, we have been remiss on arguing for the measures which make this possible. Arguing schools should only close as a last resort may be true, but is largely beside the point here. We need to elucidate a programme that allows schools to remain as widely open as possible, as safely and sustainably as possibly.
Immediately, that means recognising that some sort of reduced days and rotas are appropriate in schools. That school workers need regular and speedy testing. That there must be a generous and wide acceptance of shielding for vulnerable and very vulnerable staff and students. This indicates the necessity for taking on large numbers of school workers, rapidly, and opening more school buildings quickly.
Without these measures the antagonism between the basic role of trade unions to keep their members safe and our desire for schools to stay open will become acute. In addition, in reality, more schools will close more widely.
These measures need to be won by the whole labour movement. A failure to win them will be no more the sole responsibility of education unions and trade unionists than the failure to win an NHS capable of dealing with crisis is the responsibility of health unions and workers.