UK: Unions concerned as schools stay open during second lockdown

published 4 November 2020 updated 12 November 2020

The main teachers’ unions in the United Kingdom (UK) have a range of concerns after the announcement of a four-week national lockdown in England. With education settings to remain open, the unions have called for appropriate measures to be taken to ensure that schools are safe environments for students and educators.

In England, a second lockdown to combat rising COVID-19 infections has been announced by the Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The lockdown is due to last from 5 November until 2 December - but it may last longer.

NEU: Close schools in national lockdown

The National Education Union (NEU) has called for schools and colleges to close during the lockdown. It has also asked that rotas be introduced at the end of the lockdown period. And it has called on the Government to meet its promise to deliver broadband and equipment to those children who do not have them. The NEU has emphasised that the restrictions will be less effective if education institutions stay open. However, it considered that schools should remain open to the children of key workers and vulnerable children during such a general closure period.

NEU Joint General Secretary Kevin Courtney described the lockdown as “another half measure and, without school closures as part of it, it is unlikely to have the effect that the prime minister wants”.

Pointing to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), he said that it is clear that schools are “an engine for virus transmission”. He added: “It would be self-defeating for the Government to impose a national lockdown, whilst ignoring the role of schools as a major contributor to the spread of the virus.” This is likely “to lead to the need for even longer lockdowns in future”.

Circuit break

The NEU highlighted that it called for a two-week circuit break over half-term to include schools. Such a circuit break was implemented by the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, the Government in Westminster has ignored this call.  “More severe measures are now called for as a result; the Government should not make this mistake again,” Courtney warned.

It is also vital that the Government ensures that proper financial support is in place for all those affected by lockdown, including crucial supply teachers and other staff, he added.

NASUWT: Government failure to deal with the threat of the virus

NASUWT-The Teachers’ Union’s General Secretary Patrick Roach said that the Government’s failure to deal with the threat of the virus has been exposed.

“Many will recognise that the Government’s failure to heed the warnings from leading scientists by reopening schools fully in September may have contributed to the increased spread of COVID-19 transmission and rising death rates over recent weeks,” he said.

A vector for transmission

There was widespread evidence of rising COVID-19 transmissions within schools, Roach said, adding that opening schools fully has acted as a vector for Coronavirus transmission in the wider community. “It is vital that the Government recognises that schools and colleges must be part of a national strategy to tackle the continuing spread of the virus.”

As the publication of advice by the Government has not been sufficient to prevent the spread of the virus in primary, secondary, and special schools or in colleges, he highlighted that “determined and radical national action and additional measures” are needed across all schools and colleges.

The Government’s view that schools should remain open fully will be viewed with concern by many parents and those working in schools, said Roach. This is especially the case if the Government does not come forward in the coming days with additional COVID-safety measures for schools, Roach added.

Extra supports

It is critical that, where there is an outbreak of COVID-19 transmission in a school, employers and public health bodies act swiftly and without hesitation to protect public health by sending pupils and staff home, he insisted.

Roach was also adamant that the Government will need to do more to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected at this critical time.

The Government needs to be clear with the public about the evidence upon which it is relying to insist that keeping schools open fully will not impact adversely on children, their families, those working in schools or undermine the impact of the latest national lockdown measures in bringing down rates of Coronavirus transmission, he stressed.

Remote education

In the event that more children or staff will need to be at home, the Government must pull out all the stops to ensure that all children have effective access to remote education, Roach said. “So far, the Government has failed to deliver on its promises of laptops for children, which is seriously hampering the efforts that are being made by schools to support vulnerable and disadvantaged children during this crisis.” He called for an urgent national plan for remote education, to be backed up by substantially additional resources for schools.

He concluded by stating that schools will also need urgent additional support if they are to stay open until Christmas and remain safe to staff and students. This support includes extra funding for cleaning, personal protective equipment, and additional supply staff to cover where other teachers are absent.