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Ten weeks into the lockdown and staunch pressure from the government for the wider reopening of schools is now imminent.
The date set is June 1, when reception, and year 1 and year 6 are set to return, shortly followed by years 10 and 12 (those with exams next year) on June 15, with other years potentially returning before the start of the summer holidays.
The Government’s “plan” – contradictions and absurdity
‘We owe it to the children…It will be safe’, says Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, citing issues of growing educational inequality and mental health concerns, particularly for disadvantaged and vulnerable children, as justifications for this call. This obscures the fact that schools have remained open for vulnerable children during the lockdown, as well as children of key workers. Schools in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are not expected to reopen until after the summer holidays.
The government’s justifications for the return to school are hypocritical and inconsistent, decrying the dangers of keeping children at home, while playing down the dangers faced by these same children, their teachers, members of their respective households and anyone else they may come into contact with, by prematurely returning to school. Suddenly they care about increasing educational inequality, even though disadvantaged children were missing out long before the pandemic. A government that talks of opening schools because disadvantaged children are losing out after implementing extensive cuts in education, scrapped education maintenance allowance, cuts to free school meal eligibility (with extra cuts being made during this crisis), closed youth centres & libraries, tripled university tuition fees and devastated mental health & social care services, and pushed another four million children into poverty as a result of their decade of austerity, is one that needs to be mercilessly exposed.
Let’s turn to the science. It appears that children are far less likely to suffer from some of the more serious effects of the virus, and therefore are less likely to infect someone else, through coughing etc., however it seems that they are just as likely to catch the virus, especially within a school environment, where they are much more likely to pass it on as well. 1,000 CV19 droplets can survive in the air of a classroom for at least 8 minutes just from 1 person talking, so one infected person talking in classroom can infect an entire class in minutes by spreading their air droplets around the classroom. So far 5,000 children have tested positive for Covid-19, 500 hospitalised, 14 have died. 2 UK children have died from the associated Kawasaki (MIS-C) inflammatory disorder, with currently 100+ infected. Schools are very clearly not safe places to be, at this point in the pandemic.
The evidence shows that there needs to be test, track, trace and isolation procedures put in place in schools and throughout wider society, something that could have been accomplished during this lockdown period, before parents and teachers are confident about children returning to school. Such measures will, however, provide little comfort to parents sending their child back to school, when asymptomatic children can get Kawasaki (MIS-C) up to three weeks after the initial viral infection is over.
In a recent development it has been revealed that government ministers actually rejected all the school reopening plans modelled by SAGE scientists, opting for one that was not proposed. So for all their declarations of following ‘the science’, this clearly demonstrates that they follow their chosen scientific advisors when it suits their purposes, but then do what they want when it doesn’t. This follows a warning from the Independent SAGE Committee, a group of leading scientists, chaired by former chief scientific adviser Sir David King, that the June 1 reopening of schools is too early for pupils to return to classrooms safely. Adding that “the crucial factor allowing school reopening around the world has been the presence of well-functioning local test, trace and isolate protocols - something that is now accepted will not be in place in England by early June”. Once again we see clearly: scientific directives of what is required to protect public health are being shirked, to pursue instead the course of action which best protects profits.
We should not be surprised to discover that sending kids back to school is more about getting parents back to work than it is about safely getting kids back to school. Schools are being reopened to provide the childcare necessary to get ordinary working people back into the workplace, in potentially unsafe conditions, so that their wage labour can be exploited to profit their employers, who are more usually able to remain safely at home. It is the lowest paid workers who are being freed/forced back out of lockdown, onto public transport and into the workplace to earn their below-living wages, while risking their lives for the profits of their employers.
It is the poor, elderly, disabled and people of colour who are most likely to die from COVID-19 and it is those demographics that are being forced back into the workplace, to risk their lives in potentially infectious environments, showing an utter disdain this government has for their lives. The change in restrictions that now allows cleaners to enter your home but not family indicates the government’s priority of economic activity over the welfare of low paid workers. Childcare is required from schools and teachers so that the parasite capitalist class (the bourgeoisie) can once again extract profit from the marginalised and the poor. The Tory response to the pandemic has been a cynical prioritisation of the health of the capitalist economy over the health of the population.
Many workers are finding themselves being pressured back to work without a guarantee that their workplace is a safe environment. Government guidelines are vague and are non-binding, allowing employers to choose how they follow them, often with little to no consultation with workers, with many vulnerable people being forced to work without adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). In many workplaces social distancing at the required two-metre distance is impossible, as is the avoidance of shared equipment. At this point in time employers are not obliged to publish risk assessments, with the Trade Union Congress (TUC) describing the situation as one where, “bad bosses will be able to expose workers to infection without fear of consequences”. This “back to school” policy exists simply to facilitate this unsafe return, to facilitate the further endangering of working people, for the sake of profits.
Along with the intentionally ambiguous messaging from the government, the relaxing of restrictions, from ‘stay at home’ to ‘stay alert’, and the fact that bosses are demanding people come back into work, the reopening of the schools at this point in time will lead to greater transmissions of the disease and could well lead to a second wave of infection. Relaxing restrictions, as well as opening schools, before adequate tracking and tracing is in operation is a disgusting display of the government’s utter disregard for some of the most vulnerable people in society.
There is also the situation of supply teachers, who are systematically exploited by parasitic agencies and their even more parasitic umbrella companies, many of whom during this pandemic have either not been furloughed or have been so at 80% of national minimum wages, when the minimum wage is already well short of a living wage. These staff will be some of the first, when schools are reopened, forced back into accepting work in multiple schools, exposing themselves to even greater risk of being infected, and infecting others.
Teachers want to return to work, they just don’t want to return to unsafe working conditions, they don’t want to risk their lives, and others, doing so. They have been praised from all quarters, not only from parents who are now beginning to understand the skills of teaching classes of 30+ pupils from their own difficulties with home-schooling, but also from the wider public with the speed with which they adapted to the new world of distance learning; reprioritising key learning, making video and audio clips, attending Zoom meetings, dealing with issues of pupil’s access to online material (devices and the internet), assessing pupil’s online work, managing the emotional needs of their pupils, personally contacting pupils and their parents, going into school on a rota to work with children of key workers and those who are disadvantaged, doing everything they can to allow them to continue their learning while protecting their mental health. This will continue until schools are deemed to be safe. Teachers do all this knowing that some exam content is by far better taught face to face, and that every day the schools are closed the more difficult it will be to catch up, generating more work when they do finally go back. Yet still this scenario is rightly preferred, over the potential lethality of premature reopenings. If schools remained closed until September, that would amount to roughly 14 weeks of missed schooling, not an insignificant amount of learning time in normal circumstances, but barely a footnote in the history of a pandemic that has, according to government figures, already claimed the lives of at least 37,000 people in the UK, 57,000 based on excess deaths. So far, we have seen 65 COVID-related deaths in the education workforce. Reopening schools now will see this figure grow. We can’t let that happen.
Educators: agitating and organising!
Plans for reopening have not passed without resistance, however. Councillors, teachers and unions, have all spoken up against this abominable policy.
In Liverpool, the council's Director for Children and Young People's Services, has said, “There is no doubt in my mind that we simply cannot reopen schools in line with the suggested timetable outlined by the government. The layout of every school is different and they all have different challenges to overcome in terms of maintaining social distancing and hygiene.” In Kent, a headteacher elaborated, “there is no such thing as social distancing in a school; it does not exist and would never exist...The reason childhood illnesses spread in a school is we are all in contact with each other. I can put two children in opposite classrooms and they will still get chickenpox because that's how it is in a school. This virus we are led to believe is a super spreader. Believe me, I would rather any child repeats a year than go back too soon and have to lose a child.”
Teachers have raised questions regarding the practical aspects of the wider reopening of schools. How will primary school children adapt to two metre distanced desk layouts when they are used to being in classrooms that are free flow and exploratory? What will children actually do if they're supposed to be sitting at their desks most of the day? What about special needs and their usual 1:1 assistance? How will the difficulties faced by children with disabilities and the difficulties they will experience by changes to their routine and environment be managed? Where is the recognition that schools can not provide the continuity of routine, staff and PPE, or the 1:1 that is very necessary for the younger age group that the government is suggesting to return to school? Where are they providing clear and concise instructions instead of hiding behind 'guidance' that allows for so much misunderstanding and ambiguity? Where’s the recognition that putting children under these extreme measures are likely to have more of a profound effect on their social and emotional mental health than being at home safe? These questions remain unanswered.
The practicalities of schools operating under social distancing rules beg many questions, with the Denmark school safety model being presented as the answer. However this neglects to recognise the many discrepancies between the situations in the UK and Denmark, firstly that Denmark locked down much earlier than we did, on March 11, and secondly, Denmark only has around 500 COVID-19 deaths compared to the UK’s current 37,000 deaths, or 59,000 excess deaths. The Denmark model includes having children in Bubbles of 10 per teacher instead of the proposal of 15 in England, when their average primary class size before the pandemic was only 20, whereas in Britain it was 28. Most Danish schools are large buildings with spacious classrooms, while the majority of UK classrooms are small cramped spaces that aren’t large enough to accommodate 15 children spread out 2m apart. In Denmark schools sites usually include both primary and secondary schools, and with their secondary schools not yet having returned, the primary classes have been able to spread out into the secondary classrooms. More lessons are being taught outside, with the majority of Danish schools possessing considerably more outdoor space than British schools and a rigorous hand-sanitising regime and outdoor washing facilities have been introduced.
The NEU has laid out five tests that need to be met by the government before they would consider it safe for schools to open, for children and their families and the staff who work in them. They stress that these tests need to be met by ‘reliable evidence, peer-reviewed science and transparent decision making.’
These are, in brief:
- Test 1: Much lower numbers of Covid-19 cases
- Test 2: A national plan for social distancing
- Test 3: Comprehensive access to regular testing for children and staff
- Test 4: Protocols to be put in place to test a whole school or college when a case occurs and for isolation to be strictly followed.
- Test 5: Protection for the vulnerable
The vast majority of NEU members support these measures and a NASUWT poll shows that only 5% of teachers think it is safe to reopen English schools. All these measures are also broadly supported by other teaching unions, and other general unions, including GMB, UNISON and Unite amongst others. They have also asked for extra money for deep cleaning and personal protective equipment, and local powers to close schools if clusters of Covid-19 infections broke out.
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, has also called for children to be disinfected at the school gates: 'In China, children stand outside the school gates and are sprayed front and back with disinfectant, their shoes are sprayed, they wash their hands with sanitiser, they must take off their mask and replace it with a new one, and their temperature is taken remotely.'
The British Medical Association (BMA), has come out in support of the NEU’s five tests, with Chaand Nagpaul CBE, BMA Council chair, making this statement:
“The BMA’s Public Health Committee (PHMC) has considered the evidence available on the re-opening of schools and has found it to be thus far conflicting, which is perhaps unsurprising given the relatively small amount of research available and the uncharted territory we find ourselves in. A paper from New South Wales found very little transmission associated with schools and suggested that children were much less susceptible to serious illness but were more likely to have asymptomatic infection. Conversely, a more recent paper from Berlin, looking at viral loads in children suggest they are just as likely to be infected as adults, and may be just as infectious.
“We, therefore, need to know more about the infectivity of children, in light of these studies, however, the view of the members of the PHMC is completely aligned with the NEU that, until we have got case numbers much lower, we should not consider opening schools.
“The NEU is absolutely right to urge caution, to prioritise testing and to protect the vulnerable. We cannot risk a second spike or take actions which would increase the spread of the virus, particularly as we see sustained rates of infection across the UK. In response to the government’s announcement this week on easing lockdown restrictions, I said that I believed their plan was too fast, too confusing and too risky. They would do well to heed your five tests before taking any further premature action.”
The NEU has advised members that they ‘should not engage with any planning based on a wider opening of schools, and if school leaders ask you if you will be available for wider working after 1st June, we urge you to reply that you are waiting further advice from your Union’ or until such measures have been met and the science that the Government claims to be relying on is shared with them. A checklist has been sent out by the NEU, GMB, UNISON asking primary schools to use in their planning for wider opening.
Some teachers have felt anxious about refusing to plan or going into work without evidence of safety, as this may go directly against what their own SLT (Senior Leadership Team) is instructing, fearing reprisals or dismissal, as this head attested to: “Our HR section would offer advice as to the process over people refusing to come to work. It could ultimately lead to dismissal, of course. I don't want to be scaring staff and saying the hard line but that's the reality”.
Teachers are being bullied/forced back into schools, risking their own lives and others or face potential capability measures or dismissal. This is the boot of a bourgeois democracy that puts the interest of capital before the interests of people.
However, the NEU has welcomed 13,000 new members since the announcement of the June 1 reopening; 65,000 people responded to the subsequent survey they sent out; and over 400,000 people have signed their petition saying schools should only reopen when it’s safe, and a further 600,000 have signed a petition demanding parents given the option not to send children back to school if they reopen in June.
A number of councils across the country are already refusing to open schools, Liverpool City Council, Hartlepool Borough Council and with the leader of Gateshead Council, Martin Gannon saying that his council’s advice continued to be to “stay at home”. He said there was evidence that the rate of infection, measured through the R rate, was greater than one in his borough, he also added that his position was echoed by his counterparts in Newcastle and Sunderland. More and more councils are now saying that their schools will not open on June 1, Blacburn, Calderdale, Bury, Rochdale, Wirral, Stockport, Slough, Brighton and Hove, all Labour held councils, all in a better position to defy Tory dictates and make their decisions based on safety and medical evidence than their Tory held counterparts, although Tory held Essex and Solihull have also now joined this crowd. Altogether that amounts to 1,500 maintained primary schools.
However at least a quarter of all primary schools in England are run by multi-academy trusts (MATs), which means that local authorities have no control over whether they open or not, with heads from a number of MATs supporting the plans of the government to open schools on June 1st, including Reach 2, Harris, Oasis and GEP, the four biggest primary chains in the UK, many with a high proportion of disadvantaged children. Although on May 21, two prominent academy chains broke ranks with the June 1 plans: The Elliot Foundation and Dixons Academies Trust, with a combined total of 40 primary, say they will not be opening to more children until 8 June at the earliest – a week after the government's current reopening target.
More and more councils, head teachers, teachers and parents are also refusing to engage with the June 1 return date. With one headteacher saying: “Our local authority yesterday informed us that headteachers have to decide how best to manage this.” Other schools are warning that although they may open to more pupils on 1 June, they will ignore government guidance, and bring them in on a rota system.
The government has so far not committed to the NEU’s five test and have instead come up their own five tests (two of which have certainly not been met – rate of infection at ‘manageable levels & tests can meet future demand) they have to meet before opening schools, which, if their target of 100,000 COVID-19 tests a day by the end of April are anything to go by, will be spun to hide their consistent failure at actually reaching this target.
With a total disregard for the lives and safety of teachers, children and their respective families it is hard not to conclude that the priority is to get the economy functioning again above and beyond the interests of ordinary working people in this country. Michael Gove said in the same breath that, “teachers will be safe in schools… none of us can guarantee that anyone will be entirely free (from risk) unless effectively they are perpetually imprisoned in their own home.” This all comes as the R rate, the number of people one infected patient can pass the virus on to, rose from between 0.5 and 0.7 to closer to 0.9. The Government measures aim to keep the rate below one in order to control the spread of the illness.
Several schools are reporting outbreaks since the lockdown, even when they have been only partially open. One such case occurred at the Eastbourne Cavendish Hub, on the subject of which the NEU made the following statement: ‘the NEU alongside our sister union GMB was very concerned to discover that there has been a confirmed case of Covid-19 at the Cavendish Hub where a staff member tested positive last weekend…We are particularly concerned as despite this being known by some of the senior leadership on Monday 11th May staff and parents were not made aware until late Friday 15th May.” Similar cases have occurred at Peterborough school, Bristol school, Derby school, Burnley school, and a Lancashire school, and some schools in France have been forced to close a week after being reopened. These cases highlight the futility and danger of the government’s decision to expand these reopenings, and the urgency with which it must be opposed by teachers, unions and their supporters.
Today (May 28), another significant government review is going ahead, however we can already see that they are beginning to feel the collective weight of unions, the BMA and local councils. They appear to be backtracking on their June 1 date, claiming that it was conditional, a target. A growing list of councils in England have advised the schools they control not to reopen in June. In Birmingham, one of England’s largest councils has said that headteachers will be able to say ‘no’. The government has stated that schools will open on a local basis, as well as allowing the final decision for opening a school to be left up to individual headteachers. Whilst on the one hand we might welcome the increased possibilities this devolution provides for resisting premature reopenings, we must also be clear about the strategic purpose of this localised decision making: if a teacher or student dies as a result of this reopening, then the government will be free from accountability. Instead, it will be local heads on the block. As such this devolution of power does not go far enough. School reopenings must be halted outright, until there is clear evidence that they are a safe course of action.
Red Fightback stands in full solidarity with teachers and their unions, in resisting this premature, profit-driven and unsafe reopening of schools, which we firmly believe will be disastrous for teachers, students and for the working class.
In the face of this assault on the safety and lives of our class, the legal rights of workers are clear: Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act (1996) states that, “When faced with a dangerous working environment which cannot reasonably be averted, every employee has the right not to suffer detriment if they leave, or refuse to attend their place of work (or take other appropriate steps) in circumstances where they reasonably believe there is a risk of being exposed to serious and imminent danger.” The COVID crisis constitutes exactly such a case of serious and imminent danger. The bare minimum of action for a militant and class-conscious trade union movement, is to assert these rights, and emphatically refuse to return to work under the present conditions. This must be the response of the teachers’ unions.
Additionally, we believe that this struggle presents an opportunity to push for further educational reforms, such as de-academisation, the scrapping of Ofsted, the stripping back of exams and assessments, reduced class sizes, greater utilisation of project or phenomenon-based learning methods, and improved pay and conditions for teachers.
Kevin Courtney, joint General Secretary of the NEU, has talked of greater changes to the education system highlighted by this crisis, such as the use of teacher assessments instead of so many formal external tests in normal times, less time spent on teaching to the test, less revision and less stress on young people, and his disappointment of the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) still insisting teachers rank their students. A ranking system that ensures about a third of children are told they are failures in maths and English every year. He has also called for a slimming down of next year’s exam content, a reduction in the number of exams for each subject, combined with some moderated teacher assessment. If teacher assessment was so easily adopted this year, why not make this the norm? We are in firm agreement with these proposals.
None of us should stand by and watch the Tories reopen schools weeks too early, risking the lives of children, teachers and all their associates, just so that the government can get the poorest and most underpaid workers to kickstart the economy back into motion. To paraphrase Che Guevara, the life of a single human being is worth infinitely more than all the profits of the capitalist class combined, and not a single life should be put at risk in the service of those profits.
We say no to a general reopening of schools until the five NEU tests have been met by reliable evidence, peer-reviewed science and transparent decision making!
Red Fightback calls upon all revolutionary and progressive organisations and individuals to resist this. We call upon unions, councils, teachers and parents to expose the realities of the government’s plans to prematurely reopen schools, to actively resist reopenings, and to mount an immediate propaganda campaign to stop this plan. Faced with such a flagrant prioritisation of profit over people, complacency is complicity.