Parents and school workers have reacted with fear and fury to Boris Johnson’s announcement that schools could start to reopen from next month.
In his speech on Sunday evening, Johnson said that children in reception, year 1 and year 6 could return “at the earliest” by 1 June.
And he said, “Our ambition is that secondary pupils facing exams next year will get at least some time with their teachers before the holidays.”
Johnson made his plan sound like it is all about benefiting students. In truth it’s about pushing parents back to work.
Fran is an NEU union rep and primary school teacher in Wandsworth, south London. “The fact that Johnson wants reception and year 1 children back makes it transparent that this is really about the economy,” she said.
“It’s about getting parents back to work. How do you get children of that age to social distance? And even if you do, how distressing would that be for them?”
Reception teacher Judy said Johnson’s announcement was a “massive assault on working class people”.
“Social distancing is impossible and cruel in reception,” she said. “If they get away with it, social distancing is gone. There is no logic to sending reception back now, except to get parents back to work.”
Primary school teacher Emma said people were “absolutely raging” at the plan, even those who wanted to get back to school.
The powerful reaction means there is potential for real resistance.
Joint general secretary of the NEU Mary Bousted said, “If schools are reopened to blatant breaches of health and safety, we will strongly support our members who take steps to protect their pupils, their colleagues and their families.
“The worst outcome of any wider reopening of schools is a second spike of Covid-19 infection.”
Within one hour, 49,000 NEU union members had responded to a union survey on the announcement. Some 85 percent disagreed with Johnson’s plan to get some children back to school from 1 June. And a massive 92 percent said they would not feel safe with the plan for a wider opening of schools.
Nearly 90 percent of union members with school age children said they didn’t think it would be safe to send their children back to school. And 92 percent said the government had to meet the NEU’s five tests before schools reopen.
These include plans for contract tracing and testing, and a national plan for social distancing.
Paul is an NEU union rep and secondary school teacher in Tower Hamlets, east London. He said, “We are for the return to schools as quickly as it’s safe to do so.” But he added that plans to send children back from 1 June are not safe.
Widespread safety fears over the plan boosted a parent petition saying that parents should have the right not to send children back to school. By Monday morning over 350,000 had signed it.
Meanwhile the NAHT, which represents head teachers, reminded its members that they have a legal right to decide if it’s safe to reopen schools.
Paul said all schools should aim to have meetings of members this week to discuss the plans and how workers should respond. “We should say Johnson has failed the five tests,” he said. “We will not go back to work until it’s safe.”
Reopening schools doesn’t only put school staff and children at risk. It is a recipe for spreading the virus through working class areas.
Children and workers will also face risks travelling to schools. And many will live with people who have health conditions that put them more at risk of death if they contract the virus.
But many parents will find having children at home full time a massive strain. They face financial pressures, plus fears about the impact of the lockdown on children’s education and exams.
Right wingers will aim to exploit all of this to get schools reopened before it’s safe.
Fran argued that school workers should take up wider demands for working class people as a whole to stop people being divided against each other.
“Parents of young children are struggling financially,” she said. “There will be really strong economic pressure on these parents to send children back to school. We need to demand proper financial support to make sure everyone can make ends meet.”
The NEU should also reach out to other unions and seek to build joint campaigns with parents. The key for school workers is to build local organisation to be able to resist the return to work.
Johnson wants to put working class people at risk for the sake of getting profits flowing again. Ordinary people must urgently fight to turn the huge level of anger at his plan into action that can save lives.