Schools: build health and safety committees

Submitted by AWL on 16 September, 2020 - 10:49 Author: A London teacher

At the end of our first week back from school summer holidays a colleague of mine rang the parents of a Year 8 boy in her tutor group. The boy had done very well in school, and was clearly delighted to be back with his friends. So my colleague talked to the boy’s dad and told him how well the boy had been doing in class.

The boy’s dad burst into tears. Presumably a mix of relief, intense long-term worry, and happiness, all coming to the surface at once.

The kids really need to be back in class. That the Tories are saying it does not make it any less true. And the parents need to see their children in school again. Schools are an essential service, and children and their families need us. That’s all of us: catering staff, MIS and office workers, TAs and teachers, too.

The problem now is to try to stay open, and stay open in conditions that are as safe as possible for all staff and children. As Covid cases rise across the country, my Academy is clearly expecting to lose some bubbles soon soon, perhaps in the next few weeks. (In our case a Year group of over 200 students constitutes a bubble).

It is not clear how many positive cases we have had, nor exactly what conditions will provoke a bubble’s quarantine at home. The management are not being forthcoming with this information. What is clear is that we started with fewer than ten Covid test kits and now have almost none left. At least seven staff are self-isolating at home.

At the end of August a Public Health England report was published about Covid outbreaks in schools in June. The PHE concluded that – especially amongst younger children – there were remarkably few cases in schools; spread into schools was coming from the outside in, especially in areas with low infection rates. “Amongst one million pre-school and Primary school children 70 children and 128 staff were affected.”

This is not a surprise, but also needs putting in context. I was teaching in June, but to classes no bigger than eight students, with the windows wide open and the school almost empty. Now the school is rammed. Consistently maintaining social distancing in the corridors and most classrooms is absolutely impossible. These students are older teenagers and the numbers of Covid cases is rising. By November the windows will all be shut and the kids will be coughing and sneezing. It is a different situation now.

Isolated cases of temporary partial and complete closure of individual schools are now being reported in response to outbreaks. Presumably infection rates will continue to rise as university students cross the country to go to campuses.

That calls for concerted union and political action in defence of school safety.

My school has a health and safety committee and we are strong enough to push for what we want. Each school is different, requiring detailed attention to local conditions. In my place, for example, we have a big concern about a heating and ventilation system in a new building which we think might be circulating air across classrooms.

But many schools are less well organised and require a lead from the National Education Union (NEU) and help from the Labour Party. Unfortunately, the NEU’s material reads like the leadership is writing a passive blog or a disinterested newspaper-comment column, rather than running a campaigning union, and organising a fight for workers’ and students’ rights. The NEU must vigorously advocate members use Health and Safety legislation, such as Section 44 from the Employment Rights Act 1996, which allows workers to take action to enforce safety standards.

The Labour Party, not wanting to cause controversy, has echoed the government’s back to school campaign without any reference to the health and safety of school workers or of people in students’ households who might have the virus transmitted to them by students.

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