Boris Johnson recklessly reiterated on Thursday that the government wants a wider reopening of schools from Monday in England. It is a move that has to be opposed because it threatens many lives.
At a press briefing, Johnson complacently declared that all the government’s tests for easing the lockdown were being met. This was despite the latest figure of recorded Covid-19 deaths showing an increase of 377 since yesterday.
Johnson said schools have the go-ahead to reopen to some pupils from Monday. Nurseries, reception, year 1 and year 6 will be first.
In another announcement, Johnson said that a maximum of six people from more than one household will be able to mingle in a garden or park. But schools will be expected to have classes of up to 15.
The NEU union’s joint general secretary Mary Bousted said the strategy meant “risks” to health and was a “disaster”. She added that government guidance on social distancing is “impossible” in schools.
Earlier in the day a group of independent scientists said the Tories will kill people by forcing more children into schools.
A report from the Independent Sage group said that the government plan is not safe. It added that, if the Tories go ahead, they will be failing to follow the advice of their own scientists, the Sage group.
On the same day Dido Harding, the chair of NHS track and trace, admitted that a new contact-tracing system wouldn’t be up and running until the end of June.
All of this will add to the growing fear and anger among ordinary people at the Tory handling of the virus crisis.
Judy Cox is a reception teacher, NEU union member and parent in Tower Hamlets, east London. She said the Tories are motivated by their own agenda.
“I think the government just wants to get Dominic Cummings off the front pages,” Judy told Socialist Worker. “They want to say everything is getting back to normal – schools going back, workers going back.
“They want to sacrifice our lives to manage their crisis.”
On the same day as the Independent Sage report was released, parents, school workers and others staged socially distanced protests against an unsafe return on 1 June.
They took place in Barnsley, Bristol, Wolverhampton, Lewisham, Edinburgh, Lambeth, York, Oxford, Sheffield, Hackney, Derby and Chesterfield. More were planned later on Thursday and on Monday.
Protesters gathered at the council building, Shire Hall, in Cambridge to oppose the Tory plan.
Parent Camila Ilsley was among those protesting. “I’m not prepared to put my kids and my family forward as an experiment for this shambolic government to do their thing for a small elite,” she said.
Organiser and parent Tom Woodcock said, the protest was “aimed at the government”. But he added that it “is not good enough” for the council to wait for the government to say whether schools are safe.
Pressure from parents and school workers has forced some schools – and councils – to significantly shift their position. Several have said reopening wider from 1 June would not be safe.
On Wednesday, Nottingham City Council issued a statement on school reopening. It said, “We are not yet convinced it is safe to open more widely on 1 June. We do not yet believe that the National Education Union’s five tests have been sufficiently met by the government.”
The NEU’s five tests include much lower cases of coronavirus, a national social distancing plan and a testing strategy.
The union has recruited 20,000 new members since the crisis began, and 2,000 new reps. Many will have been heartened by union leaders’ insistence that schools should open only when these tests have been met and when it is safe.
Union leaders must not give in to pressure to abandon this position. The Tories are in crisis and they can be beaten.
Judy explained that many parents and staff are fearful, particularly as people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are more likely to die from Covid-19.
She added, “A lot of children live with grandparents or with people who have health conditions such as asthma. There are huge levels of anxiety about schools reopening – which isn’t surprising. At least three members of staff at our school have lost someone to Covid-19.”
The Independent Sage report showed that the government’s modelling of the impact of school wider reopening shows that the R number would rise above 1. The government says that, if this happens, the virus would begin to rapidly spread once again.
“By going ahead with a general school reopening from 1 June, the government is risking a new surge in cases of Covid-19,” it concluded.
And the NEU has shown that, even under lockdown conditions, schools have struggled to create safe environments.
An NEU survey of over 4,000 members this week showed that nearly a quarter said student numbers had not been low enough to allow social distancing.
The Tories initially wanted children in reception, year 1 and year 6 to begin to return in wider numbers from 1 June. Now top Tories have admitted that this won’t happen in many schools.
But any school that reopens to wider numbers from 1 June is one too many. A wider reopening can have a huge impact beyond the school gates.
Judy said the NEU’s five tests “unite us not just in schools but with families and communities”. And she stressed that resistance is crucial.
“Every day we push them back will save more lives,” she said. “There is everything to play for.”