Socialist Worker

We can resist the unsafe return, say school workers

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2744

A protest last year against unsafe plans to reopen schools

A protest last year against unsafe plans to reopen schools (Pic: Guy Smallman)


Easing coronavirus restrictions rapidly will create “another surge in hospitalisations and deaths”. That’s according to Professor John Edmunds from the government’s Sage group of scientists.

Yet Boris Johnson still wants ten million people to return to schools and colleges in England on Monday of next week. His deadly plan must be resisted.

At a London NEU union ­meeting last week, education workers described how they have organised to fight back.

Neil from Redbridge said union members at his school had voted by 85 percent to send a letter to the head teacher demanding a phased return. “We can win—it’s ­winnable,” he said.

Jenny from Brent described how a group of workers had successfully resisted a push to get them in before 8 March to do preparation work. “Even compromises save lives,” she said. “It’s about not losing hope.”

Emma from Barking and Dagenham said workers have won a staggered return at her school and are now fighting for more.

“We might not win, but it’s about being principled,” she said. “We would be remiss if we didn’t put the argument.”

Michael from Redbridge argued, “We have to do everything we can to win a safe return. Don’t just accept that everybody returns on the same day. Seventy-one reps have signed a letter for a staggered return.

“It shows the mood. People are very worried.”

Amy from Tower Hamlets said workers organising meant the union was “being listened to in my school”. “The head has met with me twice this week,” she said. “That would never have happened before.”

Succeeded

The union has succeeded in making masks compulsory and the school will send a reusable mask to every student.

“People are still scared and there are members who feel really angry,” Amy added. “But now we have won certain health and safety measures. It’s about that collective power the union group now feels it has.”

A statement signed by nine unions last month condemned the 8 March plan.

The NEU agreed last week to ­support workers “using collective action to seek a staggered reopening”.

It also agreed to use new ­checklist materials, looking at things such as ventilation, to judge whether it’s safe to return to schools.

It said workers could use the materials “with the threat of industrial action and the potential for use of S44 under advice from the union”.

Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act says ­workers have the right not to work in unsafe environments.

Primary school teachers across England cited it when refusing to return to schools in January—on the advice of the union.

It’s good that the NEU has not ruled out using Section 44. Yet union leaders had previously said falling cases mean this is not the right time to use it.

It’s right, and possible, to resist to stop more virus deaths. If safety demands aren’t met, workers should use their power and refuse to return.

 


Stats show danger of easing restrictions

Coronavirus levels remain high across Britain—and are rising in some areas. Cases of a new “Brazilian” variant of the virus, said to be highly transmissible, have also been confirmed in Britain.

Figures released last week from Public Health England showed that infections are going up in 69 of 315 local authority areas, more than one in five.

The virus remains a significant threat, despite the rollout of the vaccine.

England’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said last week that some areas are “burning quite hot” with rising levels of new infections.

Areas with rising infections include the Midlands and east and west coast of England—all areas that are still supposedly in lockdown.

“This reinforces the fact that this battle is not won,” said Van-Tam.

Tory health secretary Matt Hancock said the rate of decline in virus infections is “slowing” but that hospital admissions and deaths remain “far too high”.

“The stay at home rules are still in place for a reason,” he said.

But it’s his government that plans to force millions out of their homes for a return to schools next week. Millions more have been pushed to continue to work in unsafe environments in non-essential industries  throughout the so-called “lockdown”.

Van-Tam said there are signs that “people are relaxing. Do not wreck this now,” he told the public.

But the people who are pushing to relax restrictions and who are putting lives at risk are the Tories, not ordinary people.


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