Socialist Worker

Battle is on to stop unsafe schools return on 8 March

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2743

Activists have been resisting Tory attempts to herd people back into unsafe schools during the pandemic

Activists have been resisting Tory attempts to herd people back into unsafe schools during the pandemic (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Boris Johnson’s plan to fully reopen all schools in England on 8 March will put many more lives at risk.

Johnson told the House of Commons on Monday, "Based on our assessment of the current data, two weeks from today students in all schools and further education settings can safely return to face to face teaching."

He said some university students would also be expected to return from 8 March. Reassuringly Johnson said, "The threat remains substantial. Lifting lockdown will result in more cases, more hospitalisations and more deaths. We cannot persist indefinitely with restrictions that debilitate our economy."

Johnson said he wants all children back in schools to protect their education and health. In reality, the Tories are desperate to get schools fully reopened so they can push more parents back to unsafe workplaces.

Their “big bang” approach would see millions of children and workers all return to schools at once. School workers and unions have denounced the plan.

“I haven’t spoken to anyone who agrees with ‘big bang’,” Emma, a primary school teacher and NEU rep in east London, told Socialist Worker. “People want to get back to school. But there is a real concern about safety and the protection of vulnerable people.

“If we open in a reckless way, we end up having to close before the end of the academic year. We don’t want to do that to kids again.”

Measures 

The Tories claim they are “following the science”. It’s a lie.

The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) released modelling studies by teams at Imperial College London and Warwick University with various scenarios for easing restrictions.

One scenario from the researchers at Imperial analyses a similar path to the one Johnson announced. It estimated that a further 150,000-280,000 people would be hospitalised and 32,200-54,800 people would die between February and June 2022.

This the potential price of the Tories' policy.

All the figures suggest that, without proper safety measures in place, schools help spread the virus.

Coronavirus is now spreading fastest among primary age children and young people, according to research published last week. This is despite the fact that primary schools are only open to vulnerable children and those with key worker parents.

Figures from the React 1 study at Imperial College London found that coronavirus is now most common among five to 12 year olds and 18-24 year olds. And researchers suggested that this could be because more children in the younger age group are in school.

Other figures show that school and nursery workers are more likely to contract Covid-19 than the general population. The Early Years Alliance last month found that one in ten nursery and pre-school workers had contracted coronavirus since 1 December.

The figure for childminders was one in 12. And the rate of infection among primary and secondary school teachers is 1.9 times higher than the general population, according to Department for Education figures.

Workers’ action in schools forces huge Tory retreat
Workers’ action in schools forces huge Tory retreat
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Emma said that her school had seen closures of bubbles and virus outbreaks even during lockdown. Hers isn’t the only school to suffer disruption.

Public Health England recorded 21 outbreaks in primary schools between 8 and 14 February. The previous week saw 28 while there were 32 the week before. Driving many more children into primary schools will likely send these figures soaring.

Outbreaks continue to be high in nurseries, which are supposed to be open as normal. There were 40 outbreaks in nurseries between 8 and 14 February, and 45 the week before.

Christina Pagel from the Independent Sage group of scientists said the React study figures for virus levels among primary age children are worrying. “It’s a sign that opening schools in March has to be done very carefully,” she said.

But the Tories are not being careful or “cautious” as they like to pretend. Unions are right to condemn the plans as “reckless”.

A joint statement signed by nine trade unions, including the NEU, GMB, NAHT, NASUWT, Unison and Unite, condemned an unsafe return to schools.

It said unions want children back in schools. But bringing children back will be “counterproductive if there is a danger of causing another surge in the virus and further lockdown”.

It called on the government to phase the return of children to schools so that the impact of wider reopening can be assessed. “The full reopening of schools will bring nearly 10 million pupils and staff into circulation in England – close to one fifth of the population,” it said.

“This is not a small easing of lockdown restrictions.”

Opposition

Disgracefully, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has offered no opposition to the Tories’ school plans. Instead, he has once again backed them up.

“Ideally I’d like to see all schools back open on 8 March and all children back in schools on 8 March,” he said on Sunday.

The Tories say it is safe to lift restrictions because virus levels are down and the vaccine is protecting more people. The React 1 study found that coronavirus infections have fallen by two thirds in a month in England.

Yet it stressed that prevalence of the virus overall remains high – with around one in every 200 people infected between 4 and 13 February.

Joint NEU general secretary Kevin Courtney said that when a phased return to schools took place last June, the infection rate was 1 in 1,000. In September it was 1 in 1,400. Yet on current trends, by 8 March the rate “is likely to be 1 person in every 300”.

Courtney has also said that the NEU will base its position on school reopening on the views of scientists. Yet the joint union statement accepts that “scientists have expressed different views” on the role that schools play in virus transmission.

The Tories will focus on whichever scientists back up what they want to do. But the figures speak for themselves.

Workers must resist an unsafe return to schools that will put more lives at risk. Those who will suffer as a result will be the poorest, the people in overcrowded homes and black and Asian people.

It’s right to fight back to stop more unnecessary deaths. In January, primary school teachers across England refused to return to unsafe schools – and helped force the Tories to include schools in the lockdown.

Action 

Now we need action again.

A statement from school workers in the Socialist Workers Party denounced the Tories’ “lethal plan”.

“They will put our lives and safety at risk to satisfy their thirst for profit – even when it risks more lockdowns and disruption,” it said. “The biggest danger is of schools helping drive community infections back up.

“There should be no question at all of even a limited reopening of schools until infection rates are below the 100 cases per 100,000 which is a key threshold recommended by Independent Sage.

“We must act in the way we did last June and January to stop them and to save lives.”

Emma said that workers “should use the same methods of organising that we used in June and January”.

“We need collective action to make sure a return is done in a safe way,” she said. “There’s a sense that we’ve managed to achieve so much, we don’t want to put it at risk now.

“Schools aren’t safe. Until they are made safe, we can’t tell our members that it’s safe to go back in.”


Sir Keir Starmer keen to appease Boris Johnson

There was a love-in between Boris Johnson and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer in the House of Commons on Monday.

Following Johnson’s announcement of his plan to ease restrictions, Starmer thanked him. “I’m glad the prime minister talked about caution,” said Starmer. “Those are the right guiding principles.

“We all agree that the priority must be for all children to be back in school as quickly as possible and to stay in school. We want that to happen on March 8.”

Starmer had already made clear he would offer no opposition to the Tories’ drive to get schools fully reopened before it’s safe.

He’d said on Sunday that he wanted to see all schools open to all children on 8 March.

Keir Starmer speech shows he has not broken with the bosses
Keir Starmer speech shows he has not broken with the bosses
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Johnson said several times that he was “delighted” to have Starmer’s support for his schools’ plan. He added, “It would be great if he could convince some of his friends in the unions.”

Disgracefully, Starmer has gone out of his way to show that he backs the Tories over unions and workers.“I don’t think there should be industrial action,” he said on Monday, in response to union fears over school reopenings.

He added that teachers may have to work extra time during holidays to help children “catch up”.

Teaching assistant Julie said the focus on catching up is “complete nonsense”. “Children need to be playing and socialising,” she said. “We need to fight for that.

“That’s key to staff wellbeing too. If it all becomes about data, it adds to the pressure.”


Scotland and Wales risk lives

More children in Scotland and Wales began returning to schools on Monday.

Children in primary years one to three returned in Scotland, along with some secondary school students who needed to do practical work for qualifications.

In Wales children aged between three and seven began to return on Monday—but high virus cases meant different rules in different places.

For instance, children were not set to return in Wrexham until Friday at the earliest, and those in Anglesey until Monday of next week.

It’s a sign that already pushing more children back to schools will mean more chaos. Coronavirus remains a threat across Britain.

And the measures that school workers have called for, such as more buildings to enable more social distancing, are not in place.

Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon and Labour First Minister in Wales Mark Drakeford are also putting more lives at risk.


Union leaders’ weak response

The NEU union leadership’s initial response following Monday’s announcement was weak.

Joint general secretaries Kevin Courtney and Mary Bousted said schools would be reopening without the measures needed to make them safe. But they added that they did not think workers would be able to use Section 44 to refuse to attend unsafe workplaces.

Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said Boris Johnson had got the “right balance” with his “cautious approach”.

And the heads of the NASUWT and NAHT unions focused on demanding vaccinations for school staff.

The UCU union seemed better. General secretary Jo Grady said Johnson’s plan is “irresponsible”.

“If our members feel their health and safety is being put at risk then we will support them including through balloting for industrial action,” she added.

However, ballots will generally be too slow.

The key to protecting safety will be workers organising on the ground.


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