The National Education Union has produced five tests for the reopening of schools.
They are: much lower numbers of cases; a national plan for social distancing; comprehensive access to regular testing for staff and pupils; a commitment to testing a whole school when a case occurs; and the option for vulnerable staff, or those who live with vulnerable people, to continue working from home. These are fine as far as they go.
A more general slogan being used by teacher and school worker trade unionists about the reopening of schools is “not until it’s safe.” This really has to be understood as “not until it’s safe enough”, because realistically we might not be back to pre-pandemic levels of risk for years.
There are steps that can be taken in the workplace to try to improve distancing, but it’s very hard to get primary-age children to understand that they need to stay two metres away from anyone else at all times. Some school workers are pursuing the demand for PPE, mainly masks.
The issue for us is that there are two aspects to the question of reopening schools — a “trade union” aspect, about workplace safety, and a wider social aspect about the implications of continuing a shutdown of schools for an extended period. There are children, particularly vulnerable children, for whom not being in school is also a threat to their safety. On the other hand, where I work, many children are cared for by their grandparents, and have underlying health conditions linked to poverty, and bringing them back to school could expose them and their families to infection.
The issues are not straightforward.