The battle is on to stop the Tories forcing an unsafe reopening of schools from 1 June.
Governments in Wales and Scotland have said they will not reopen in June. Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon said this week that schools there would not reopen until after the summer break.
And some councils in England— including Liverpool, Hartlepool and Bury—have pledged not to reopen on 1 June. Every other council should pledge the same.
The NEU union does not currently think it is safe to reopen schools on 1 June. It says the government must meet five tests—including a plan for Covid-19 testing, social distancing and for protecting vulnerable people—before they reopen.
Joint NEU general secretary Kevin Courtney told a 20,000-strong online union meeting this week, “The five tests are not obstructive—they’re tests the government could meet.”
He added, “You have an absolute legal right not to work in an unsafe environment.”
The NEU’s stance has won it thousands of new members and reps— including 1,000 new reps last week. It’s also won backing from parents, NHS workers and health professionals.
The British Medical Association (BMA) last week said it stands in “full support” of the NEU’s position.
The Tories argue that children are less likely to pass on the virus. But the BMA pointed out that the scientific evidence about infectivity and transmission rates among children is “conflicting”.
It said, “Until we have got case numbers much lower we should not consider reopening schools.”
The government claims it is following Denmark, which has reopened schools.
But this took place when the death rate was far lower, and with stronger safety guidance, than in Britain.
Right wingers have gone into overdrive to back the Tories. They accuse unions of sabotaging poor children’s education and wellbeing, and teachers of being lazy.
Yet schools have remained open for vulnerable children and those with key worker parents throughout the pandemic. And teachers have delivered learning materials to children at home.
Workers want more children back in school—but they want this to be done safely. And we should take no lectures about tackling disadvantage or inequality from millionaire Tories who have pushed savage school cuts.
It’s true that the lockdown has hit poorer children. A report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies this week detailed how it had increased inequalities among children.
But Courtney pointed out that if the government wanted to help poorer children, it should take the steps needed to make schools safe.
The Tories want more children in schools so they can force more parents back to work. Union leaders are right to oppose them. They should resist the pressure to back down.
And every trade unionist, activist and campaigner has to get behind the campaign to stop more ordinary people’s lives being put at risk.
A five year old girl is in an intensive care unit in Leeds after contracting coronavirus at school.
Scarlett Roberts has developed Kawasaki, an inflammatory response thought to be linked to the virus.
Scarlett’s great aunt June said that opening schools while so little is known about the illness amounts to treating children like “guinea pigs”. There have been around 100 known cases of Kawasaki in Britain so far.
One child, eight month old Alexander Parsons, died from the disease.
His mum Kathryn said more parents would be “in the same unimaginable position unless the government stops gambling with people’s lives”.
“The fact they want children back in schools on 1 June is insane,” she said. “More children will die.”
A primary school in Northumberland has provoked a furious backlash over its plans to reopen.
Holywell Village First School posted pictures showing “play bubbles” that children would be confined to in the playground.
Very young children would only be able to go to the toilet at allotted times.
There would be no toys or books in classrooms.
“If they fall over or have a toilet accident they will be encouraged to change themselves and clean their scrape or cut,” said the post.
Parents would be called to collect children unable to clean themselves.
Forcing children into school under such conditions is cruel. But the drastic measures being considered also give the lie to the claim that schools will be safe environments.
Former Tory education secretary Michael Gove claimed on Sunday he could guarantee teachers would be safe.
But when pressed, then said, “There is always in any loosening of these restrictions a risk of people catching coronavirus.”
Two cases of coronavirus were confirmed at Springfield Primary School in Derby last week.
The school immediately closed and everyone who had been attending now has to self-isolate.
School boss David Blackwell said the cases “emphasise what can happen very quickly in a school environment”.
He said trying to reopen with 15 pupils in a classroom would be almost impossible.
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