Workers can stop the Tories imposing an unsafe return to schools. That was the message from a meeting in Tower Hamlets, east London, on Wednesday.
The meeting, Safe return and recovery for our schools and children, was organised by the NEU and Unison unions. It took place just days before Boris Johnson is expected to announce plans to get more children back into schools from 8 March.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, told the meeting that reopening schools more fully depends on “assessing when it’s safe”. And he called for measures to “keep transmission low in schools”.
Schools across England have been closed to most children since January. Then, significant numbers of primary school workers refused to return to work after Christmas.
The NEU had advised them to cite Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act to refuse to attend on safety grounds. Workers’ action helped force the Tories to include schools in the latest lockdown.
Courtney said that the union had been right to call for schools to be open only to children of key workers and vulnerable children. John McLoughlin, branch secretary of Tower Hamlets Unison, agreed that unions had been “vindicated”.
“It took a fight from the unions to say it is completely unsafe to be opening schools,” he said. “We want children in school. But it was about protecting the whole community.
“It’s worth saying we have been proved right. Having schools open only for children of key workers and the most vulnerable children has had a huge effect on bringing the rate of infection down.”
John reminded the meeting that the NHS “nearly went over the brink”. And the danger hasn’t gone away.
“With these new variants, the danger of it exploding again is a very real threat,” said John. “I’m glad to hear that Boris Johnson is talking a bit more cautiously, but I don’t trust him. There is a lot of pressure from the Tory right to open things up as early as possible.”
Kevin Courtney spelled out some of the NEU’s demands. They include smaller “bubbles” of children in schools, more ventilation, more mask wearing and “mass testing”.
The question is how to win these demands.
Unison rep Tom Kay said the pandemic has shown “the capacity of working class communities to organise and resist”.
“Whatever gets announced next week, we have to insist we’re not going back until it’s safe,” he said. “If it isn’t safe, we have to organise in every school to make sure people know their rights and know how to use them effectively.”
He backed recovery plans drawn up by the NEU and Unison but asked, “What do we do when the government says no to the recovery plans? We need to prepare to take the government on.”
Judy Cox, a primary school NEU rep, said she was “incredibly proud of the action we took in January because we saved lives”.
She said, “We want our children back in school, but not under any circumstances.” So the union needs to “really fight” for the measures it is calling for.
Speakers described the severe hardships that working class children have suffered during lockdown.
Courtney said the union agrees with Johnson that schools should be a priority for reopening. “It’s right to open schools as soon as it’s safe because it’s bad for children when schools are closed,” he said.
And Tower Hamlets Labour mayor John Biggs said, “I don’t want schools to open unsafely. But there’s a tension. The majority of our schoolkids come from working class families. Kids lack the resources that kids elsewhere have.”
There was rightly fury at the Tories, who have driven up poverty, then using this poverty to justify lifting restrictions.
Yet there’s also a danger that focusing on the damage done to children by lockdowns blunts the fight for safety. And it could add to the pressure many school workers will feel to return to work, regardless of whether it is safe.
The Tories use the vaccination programme, successfully rolled out by the NHS, to claim it’s safe to start lifting restrictions.
But John said the vaccines “are not a silver bullet”. “We don’t yet know how effective they are in preventing transmission,” he said.
It’s right to fight for more support for ordinary people during the pandemic. But it’s also right to resist attempts to push workers and children into unsafe situations that will cause more infection and death.
Activists should not be apologetic about striking to save lives. “We reserve the right to look at Section 44,” said John. “Not just to look after ourselves but because we care about the community we are part of.
“It’s not a time for complacency.”