The coronavirus lockdown has hit the scale of resistance to the government. But their plan to reopen schools from 1 June could transform things.
The plan is a blueprint for letting Covid-19 rip through working class areas for the sake of bosses’ profits. It could see school workers—and students—refuse to return.
On the evening of Johnson’s speech on Sunday 9 May, the NEU union’s website crashed under the weight of people trying to join. Some 1,700 joined that evening. By last Wednesday, the NEU had recruited 5,000 new members since the speech. By last Thursday, 7,500.
Alex Kenny from the union’s national executive said, “They haven’t joined because they want to go back to work. They’ve joined because they think it’s not safe to go back.”
He was speaking at an NEU Left online meeting last week. Parent and primary school teacher Sharon told the meeting that, as a black woman, she felt especially vulnerable. “There are so many things that petrify me about going back to school,” she said.
“It seems that people from my background are four times more likely to succumb to Covid-19 and die. I don’t want to be led to work like a lamb to the slaughter.”
The Tories want children back to school in order to get businesses going again—and that’s fuelling the anger.
Swindon primary teacher Debbie Brown told Socialist Worker, “I don’t believe the decision to bring back nursery, reception and year 1 is for the good of the children. It is to offer childcare so parents are able to return to work.
“It is an economic decision.”
Robin Head is Somerset joint secretary for the NEU and an NEC member. “It’s ridiculous to return on 1 June,” he told Socialist Worker. “We strongly advise that members shouldn’t do it.
“This is sending working class people to their deaths.”
Jess Edwards is a primary school teacher in south London and union executive member. “The NEU is committed to a campaign that forces the government to drop its plans,” she said.
“The government has not met a single one of the union’s five tests to make schools safe.
“Staff should not be forced to return to unsafe workplaces. They have legal protections, such as Section 44 of the Employment Act.”
Within days of Johnson’s announcement, union activists had organised online meetings in schools. They reported widespread fury and fear.
Stefan Simms is district secretary for Ealing NEU in west London, which held a 100-strong zoom meeting last week. “It began at 5pm and by one minute past it was full,” he told Socialist Worker.
“Loads of reps couldn’t get in.
“We had a vote about whether to refuse to return on 1 June. Everyone voted yes. Fear is a massive motivator—people are scared of dying.”
Caoimhe is a 15 year old school student in south London. She told Socialist Worker, “I’ve contacted my friends and asked them to talk to every student they know about this. People I don’t know from other schools are now joining a WhatsApp group. We’re starting a petition.
“People think young people are just going to do what we’re told. But if they open before we know it’s safe, then we’re not going to go.”
Reopening schools could put huge numbers of lives at risk.
The Tories now claim children don’t pass on the virus. Robin dismissed the claims as “pathetic nonsense”. He said, “We are laying the gauntlet down to the government and saying, where’s the medical evidence?”
Our schools aren’t big enough to social distance and there aren’t enough things in place to make us safe. How are we going to walk from classroom to classroom safely?Caoimhe, school student
Debbie has been going into school regularly on a voluntary rota as her school remains open for children of key workers. She explained the problems in making schools safe while the pandemic remains.
“Schools are not built for social distancing,” she said. “The size of the classrooms, the corridors, areas to eat and play are not designed for children to stay two metres apart.
“Plus children are social beings and find it impossible to remember the importance of distance when they are among other children. We see this daily with key workers’ children.”
Debbie said her school has been “completely adapted” for 15 key worker children. But she added, “The measures are not workable options for the numbers expected to return on 1 June.”
Caoimhe said, “Our schools aren’t big enough to social distance and there aren’t enough things in place to make us safe. How are we going to walk from classroom to classroom safely? How many kids will there be in a class?
“How much space will there be between tables? How are we going to eat lunch? What about people arriving at school all going through the same gate or door?
“We need clear plans explained to everyone before we go back. We’re not just going to blindly walk into a dangerous situation and put our families at risk.”
Many also fear the emotional impact of hauling very young children back to school from 1 June. Oxfordshire reception teacher Lucy said it could “do far more harm than good”.
She explained how the guidance would force very young children into an unsettling, scary and alien environment.
“There will be no soft toys, no access to outdoor play equipment,” she said. “I have to remove anything with small parts, which is the majority of what we have.
“Many children wouldn’t see any familiar adults or their friends. How can I explain to a four year old that your friends are somewhere in the school but you can’t play with them?”
Debbie added, “They will not understand the social distancing rules.
“Soft toys and soft furnishings must be removed. There can be no sharing of their classroom areas—resources, games. Everything they touch will need regular cleaning.
“None of this has been decided with their social, emotional and mental health needs considered.”
Some argue that keeping schools closed harms children who are poor or particularly vulnerable. But this is hypocrisy coming from Tories whose policies have caused the poverty in the first place.
As Lucy said, “If a small number of children are being negatively impacted by being at home, then let’s talk about how we can support them now.”
Many will also need extra support when schools do return. Again, there is no planning for this.
Warwickshire parent Jacqui works in a community mental health team.
“Many children will have come to significant harm during lockdown,” she said. “There will be traumatised children returning—not just due to abuse and neglect, but who have perhaps lost parents or others.
“There needs to be preparation. You need emotional and staff capacity to respond. This race back to school on 1 June is about childcare, not offering education or a safe and healing environment. It is potentially really dangerous for children.”
Keep up momentum to win the vital fight
There is a mood to stop the Tories. Nearly 66,000 parents signed an NEU union petition saying schools should only reopen when it’s safe.
Almost 10,000 head teachers signed it, nearly seven thousand school governors, almost 48,000 school support staff and nearly 158,000 teachers.
Fran is a primary school teacher in south London. She told Socialist Worker, “Management have made clear they do not think it is safe or feasible to open on 1 June.
“It’s not fair for NHS staff, who have been disproportionately affected, to be put at risk again in a second wave of infections. We have more new cases and deaths now than when we went into lockdown.”
Management have made clear they do not think it is safe or feasible to open on 1 June. It’s not fair for NHS staff, who have been disproportionately affected, to be put at risk again in a second wave of infections. We have more new cases and deaths now than when we went into lockdown.”Fran,south London primary school teacher
Stefan said, “Governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales don’t think it’s safe to return. The British Medical Association doesn’t think it’s safe.
“Schools should stay closed. Nonetheless, if any school does open we should say that we aren’t coming in. People are responding very well to these arguments.”
But there is also a battle going on. Primary school teacher Anthony described how one assistant head teacher feels there is “no excuse” for staff not to return.
“I’m a chronic asthmatic, and I said I don’t feel safe getting on the Tube never mind being in school,” he said. “She told me I should just get a bike.”
And school workers’ desire to stop more deaths has led to an outpouring of bile.
Newspapers such as the Daily Mail and Telegraph have wheeled out old complaints about “the blob” blocking getting back to business as usual.
Kenny said, “We’re heading towards a big battle. The mainstream press and the Tories are after us.”
Right wingers in Labour have joined the attacks too.
Former Labour education secretary David Blunkett last week said anyone who opposes schools reopening “is working against the interests of children”. He ridiculed teachers for clapping health workers who are “taking a risk” while not taking risks themselves.
In fact at least 65 education staff had died with coronavirus across England and Wales by 20 April.
As the coronavirus crisis continues, bosses and the Tories will ramp up the pressure to force workers to return and unions to back down.
But many head teachers think opening schools on 1 June is dangerous.
“People are asking, who will take final responsibility for this,” said Robin. “If we open our doors on 1 June and a staff member, child or family member dies, who will be held accountable?”
Fran said some workers worry that, if they refuse to return, they will be undermining good head teachers. But she said, “Most school heads do not want to put people at risk. By taking a firm stand as a union group, you take some of that pressure away from them.”
Stefan said, “Lots of head teachers agree with us, but they’re under a lot of pressure to cave in. Our action will help them to do what they know is the right thing.
“In France, Emmanuel Macron didn’t back down over reopening schools. We have to assume that Boris Johnson won’t back down without a fight.”