Workers are demanding that all schools should move to online learning for at least two weeks because it is not safe for them to fully reopen. That’s the message from their NEU union.
Its advice “applies to all primary and secondary schools, special schools and SEND settings, colleges and early years settings”. And the union has said that workers have the right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions.
The NEU issued its call on Saturday. Some 6,000 people joined the union the same day. It’s a sign that, when unions take a lead, they can grow.
Micki is a nursery school teacher in south London. She told Socialist Worker that the NEU’s advice “was absolutely the right call to make”.
“We needed our national union to stand up to this shameless and reckless government with us, to give confidence to members to take action,” she said.
According to current government advice, nursery schools and early years settings should open on Monday. In Micki’s school, workers had already planned to refuse to return on safety grounds.
“We met on New Year’s Eve,” she explained. “We determined that the risk to safety of a full reopening of our school was too great and that we would exercise our right not to go into an unsafe workplace under Section 44.
“Hearing our national union advise all of us across the country to do the same has been very powerful.”
Nearly 100,000 people watched or joined a national NEU Zoom meeting on Sunday morning. And many union activists have reported big, confident local meetings following the NEU’s call.
Joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said the union was acting based on soaring virus cases in schools.
“Cases were rising rapidly amongst school age children at the end of last term and they were the highest rates of any demographics,” he said. “Children can spread the infection into their families and into the wider community.”
Importantly, Courtney said it is “not good enough” to “always be behind the curve, playing catch up with new strains of Covid”. And he said that while the union is calling on the government to take the right steps, “we cannot simply agree that the government’s wrong steps should be implemented”.
“That is why we are informing our members that they have a legal right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions,” he said.
The NEU’s move is hugely welcome and has massively increased the pressure on the Tories. The government has already been pushed into retreat after retreat.
Initially the Tories planned to “stagger” the return to schools for secondary school children. They are prioritising exams over safety—and so wanted years 11 and 13 to return on 11 January, with other years following on 18 January.
On this model, primary schools, colleges and early years settings would return as normal from 4 January.
Then education secretary Gavin Williamson was forced to say that primary school children in some London boroughs would not return on 4 January. After another outcry, this quickly changed to all primaries in London.
Yet bizarrely, the government expects parents elsewhere in England to send their children back as normal, even in Tier 4 areas.
Cases and death rates have soared across Britain over the past week. Yet many schools were already at breaking point before the Christmas break.
“In the final week of term ten of our staff—a third of us—plus our family members contracted the virus,” said Micki.
“There simply weren’t enough staff to keep the school open and it closed. Most of the school community had to isolate. Our experience has shaken us all terribly.”
And Micki said her school had done “everything we possibly could to reduce risk” such as being outdoors and implementing temperature checks.
But very young children can’t socially distance. And the government has refused to put measures in place across education—such as more staff and extra buildings—to help keep people safer.
The NASUWT, GMB and Unison unions have also called for a shift to online learning. The GMB said that if Williamson pressed ahead with full school reopenings, it “would be left with no option other than to take action to defend members’ safety at work”.
The NAHT and ASCL head teachers’ unions are taking legal action against the government over its school plans. And parents’ groups are also organising to resist an unsafe return to schools.
Joint NEU general secretary Mary Bousted told Sunday's online meeting that several councils are supporting the NEU position. “The Association of Kent head teachers is calling for online learning,” she said. “Birmingham council is saying it will support schools that say it is unsafe to open. Brighton council has told its schools to close. The three Liverpool MPs support our stance. The Swale Academy Trust are moving all their schools to online learning.”
The Tories can be beaten. But there will also be a right wing backlash from those desperate to maintain a facade of “business as usual” and keep parents in work. And disgracefully, Labour leader Keir Starmer has refused to back workers and unions fighting an unsafe return to schools.
Instead Starmer criticised the government’s “last-minute U-turn” on school re-openings. When Labour London mayor Sadiq Khan called for schools to close early before Christmas, Starmer said he should look at how to keep them open.
School workers everywhere must organise on the ground to defend safety and resist the Tories.
Micki said workers at her school are determined and united. “We will not go in as normal next week,” she said. “This is not normal. It will be hard for families but the stakes are far too high.
“We are taking action together to keep everyone as safe as we can.”