Teacher unions urge caution over timetable for re-opening schools

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Ten trade unions representing around one million teachers across the UK and Ireland have written a joint letter to education ministers urging “significant caution in any consideration of re-opening schools”.

Sent to the education ministers of all five nations, the letter is asking governments to ensure there is sufficient capacity to “test, trace and isolate” before any re-opening can happen.

It raises teachers’ fears that there is a “very real risk of creating a spike in the transmission of the virus by a premature opening of schools”.

It comes ahead of an expected announcement this weekend about how the Westminster government intends to ease coronavirus lockdown restrictions in England, including a timetable for the re-opening of schools.

Westminster education secretary Gavin Williamson has already confirmed that schools will be re-opened in a phased manner, but has refused to be drawn into national media speculation about the timetable.

Phased re-opening is also on the cards for the other home nations. In Scotland, first minister Nicola Sturgeon warned in a paper published on Tuesday (May 5) that re-opening schools fully would see a new spike in infections that could overwhelm the NHS. She added that her ministers are considering a phased approach to returning pupils “when it is safe to do so".

The Welsh government has said that an official date has yet to be agreed, and there has been no announcement in Northern Ireland, although first minister Arlene Foster has previously said that school closures were likely to last until the summer.

Meanwhile, schools in the Republic of Ireland are to remain closed until at least September.

BLOG : Re-opening schools – Four barriers we risk overlooking

The joint union letter is also calling for “significant operational changes” in schools to ensure “effective social distancing, strong hygiene routines, appropriate PPE where required, and on-going risk assessments”. The letter states:

“We wish to urge significant caution in any consideration of re-opening schools.

“First, we would highlight the very real risk of creating a spike in the transmission of the virus by a premature opening of schools. We are convinced by the experience of other systems that a critical tool in preventing a surge of infection is an established capacity to ‘test trace and isolate’ and we would argue that re-opening schools before such a regime is in place, would be catastrophic to the rate of infection.

“Second, it is clear to all that schools can only re-open and operate safely if there are significant operational changes in place to ensure effective social distancing, strong hygiene routines linked to thorough cleansing practices, appropriate PPE available where required, and on-going risk assessments in place to monitor operations. This will mean that as schools cannot re-open as normal, a phased return will be required and priorities established around attendance, which is likely to be part-time for most pupils.

“As part of the establishing of priorities we would stress a third point – which is the need to consider equity. We recognise that children from poor and challenged backgrounds and vulnerable children will inevitably require significant additional support as we move slowly back to a more settled situation. We need to recognise, also, that potentially all children will have suffered a level of trauma as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and we would urge that the initial focus when schools re-open, in any capacity, should be on the health, wellbeing, and emotional resilience of our students.”

The letter also urges the five education ministers not to forget the wellbeing of teachers and support staff, reminding them that “many may well have suffered stress and trauma as well as their pupils”.

The letter has been sent by the Educational Institute of Scotland, Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, NASUWT, National Education Union, University and College Union, Teachers Union of Ireland, Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland, Irish Federation of University Teachers, Irish National Teachers’ Association, and the Ulster Teachers’ Union.

It has been sent to the Westminster education secretary Gavin Williamson, Scotland’s deputy first minister and education secretary John Swinney, Wales’ education minister Kirsty Williams, Northern Ireland’s education minister Peter Weir, and Ireland’s education and skills minister Joe McHugh.

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of NASUWT, one of the 10 unions, said: “It must not be forgotten that the decision to close schools and colleges to the majority of children was made on public health grounds and that any decision to partially or fully re-open schools and colleges must be guided by the same over-riding public health interest.

“Teachers, support staff, pupils and their families must not be used as an experiment and it would be reckless for any government to ignore the scientific evidence and thereby endanger lives.”

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