Coronavirus chaos is causing soaring numbers of schools across England to close.
The latest figures from the Department for Education (DfE) show that the number of schools fully closed more than doubled in a week. It admitted that this was “driven by an increase in the number of schools closed for Covid-19 reasons”.
The figures make a mockery of Tory claims that they are keeping schools open to protect students’ mental health and education. The reality is that more and more schools are not open. And even those not fully closed have large numbers of teachers and students isolating at home.
A primary school in Tower Hamlets, east London, closed for a week after school workers and union reps raised safety concerns.
An NEU union rep at the school told Socialist Worker, “We had a number of Covid outbreaks concentrated in year groups. It seemed clear that teachers were getting infected from pupils, and that we had asymptomatic children in school.
“Our head teacher gave a briefing and told us that another teacher had been infected. There had been three or four cases in two weeks, plus children. I spoke to other union reps and said we can’t carry on like this.”
Union reps asked the head to close the school, or to close certain buildings where the virus was concentrated.
“We also said we wanted everyone to stay in their own class and have actual bubbles,” said the rep. “Currently teachers have been moving between classes because they’ve had to do extra stuff on top of teaching.
“We got the sense that our head agreed with us, but felt her hands were tied by the government.
“So we said we would email all our members to ask whether they support our demands and if they are prepared to act to win them. We mentioned Section 44 as a last resort— where workers can refuse to work in an unsafe environment.
“After discussions, the head announced that the school would close for a week. And after that other measures we called for, such as complete bubbles, will be in place.”
The rep explained how the virus had caused chaos in the school since reopening in September.
“Before we closed we had year one and reception out due to cases, and year 5 were just coming back,” said the rep. “Some people were coming back from isolating for a third time. This week another teacher and a child tested positive.”
Yet despite the risks, Public Health England (PHE) did not advise that the school should close.
“PHE said 10 percent of a school community had to be infected before they would consider closing on Covid grounds,” said the rep. “But the death rate per 100 infections is 3.6 percent. And although most young children aren’t badly affected, we are in an area of multi-occupancy and deprivation.
“In one of our briefings, someone from PHE said there’s nothing unusual about our school and that infection figures are quite typical.”
But it is not reassuring to be told that many other schools have high levels of disruption— instead it is deeply worrying.
The DfE figures show that 1 percent of schools in England were closed on 19 November—up from 0.4 percent the week before. This is an estimate as the data is based on the 80 percent of state-funded schools that respond to the DfE’s weekly survey.
But of a total of 24,360 schools in England, it represents a rise from 97 schools fully closed to 243.
The Tories’ refusal to make schools safe means more stress and uncertainty for children and workers. It means closures and bouts of isolation at short notice, leaving parents no time to organise childcare and teachers no time to plan online learning.
Little wonder that hundreds of thousands of people have signed petitions demanding that schools close early in the run-up to Christmas.
Nearly 120,000 people have signed a petition calling for a two-week school lockdown and online learning from 9 December. Another petition calling for schools and colleges to be closed to “protect teachers and pupils and their families” has gathered over 415,000 signatures.
MPs are due to debate both petitions on Monday.
The NEU rep said it is important that workers fight to shape what happens in schools.
“Head teachers are often worried but feel constrained by the government,” they said. “Our union group was proactive. It helped to give the head more confidence to close the school—and made sure that workers felt they had a voice.”