Throughout the Covid pandemic, but particularly since the wider reopening of schools in June, there has been debate about the role of schools in spreading the virus and the right balance between the need to provide children with education and the most effective suppression of Covid.
The key issue for us as socialists is for as many schools to be open as safely and sustainably as possible. The fact is that, for as long as society is affected by the Covid pandemic and there is no widely available vaccine, schools will not function normally and are likely to be subject to persistent closures whether partial or total.
It makes little sense to centre our policy on a counterposition between the need for open schools and the need to control and suppress the virus. They are inextricably linked.
Where this dialogue boils down to schools being open or closed, it largely misses the point. Safe and sustainable school provision for all children will only be possible if the virus is contained. We agree with those who have been arguing that society-wide measures to achieve this aim are necessary (masks, lockdowns, social distancing, test and trace etc). We have agreed with the calls from Sage and Labour for a new lockdown and that the Tory government has been irresponsible to ignore these calls.
We share the criticism that they have persistently failed to act in time and that their approach has cost tens of thousands of lives. Our policy on schools is part of this overall approach, advocating that society takes the collective measures necessary to suppress the virus, protect communities, save lives and prioritise the vulnerable.
School closures whilst these measures are implemented may be necessary. In the case of the current four-week lockdown the NEU and those Labour leaders and representatives who have supported them are right to argue that schools should move to attendance by vulnerable and key-worker children only and remote learning for others.
The decision to make that call was not made lightly by a union leadership that resolutely resisted demands from many of its own members to oppose full reopening in September. It was made in response to the evidence. Positive Covid cases amongst school-age children have ballooned since the September reopening. They increased by nine times among primary pupils and a staggering 50 times for secondary-age pupils.
To underline the point, there was a reduction in these figures after the October half term when schools closed. SAGE scientists have said that even a one-week-on, one-week-off plan in secondary schools would reduce transmission as much as closing down the hospitality industry.
As the infection rate increased, pupil attendance in schools fell. In the most affected areas it plummeted. In Knowsley in the last week before half-term 40% of pupils weren’t in school. The Department for Education response to this was to change the Covid response guidelines to make it less likely that pupils would be required to isolate. The result, inevitably, was an increase in the infection rate.
Such a chaotic unplanned approach to managing the virus is not sustainable. At a time when the NHS is likely to be under more pressure than in any other part of the year, it makes no sense to ignore the role schools could play in reducing transmission, even if only for a period.
However, any inclusion of schools in the lockdown must be used to ensure that test and trace is fully operative for all school workers and that rotas are prepared to enable reduced but sustainable school opening after the end of that period. It is neither desirable or necessary for schools to permanently close to most pupils for as long as it takes to suppress the virus but, where there are outbreaks in schools, closures (partial or total depending on the circumstances) will be necessary. Even in the event of local or national closures schools should remain open to vulnerable children and the children of key workers.
Whether the government can be made to adopt the NEU position or not, we support school workers who campaign and organise collective action to win specific safety measures in their workplaces such as reduced days and rotas, for school workers to be tested regularly and quickly and a generous and wide acceptance of shielding for high-risk and very-high-risk staff and students. This indicates the necessity for taking on large numbers of school workers, rapidly and opening more school buildings quickly.
• This article reflects the majority view of the Workers’ Liberty school workers’ fraction. Other Workers’ Liberty activists inside and outside the fraction disagree and will explain their views in future issues.