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11 November 2020

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Schools need union action for safety

Socialist Party members in schools speak out

  (Click to enlarge)

"Apart from open windows and markings on the floor, it's business as usual"

Midlands teacher and NEU officer

While we welcome the NEU taking the stance that schools and colleges should be part of the lockdown, what's become clear to members is that it lacked teeth. Our education staff are still working in schools with an increasing number of infections.

There needs to be a clear strategy of what we can do now to protect all of the school community - staff, students and their families. This cannot just be rotas for secondary schools. In primary and special education, the infection rate is rising and bubbles are regularly bursting. Primary and special education reps are unhappy that they are being ignored.

The escalation strategy of the union relies mainly on schools with reps, but even in an active district like mine, we have many schools that don't have reps. Our reps are finding it difficult to argue for escalation to individual school ballots as staff don't want to go it alone. It's not just Covid that's the issue. Workload is increasing, with extra work being provided for isolating students, and staff are exhausted. Management pressure is also increasing, with 'learning walks' and observations being prioritised above safety of staff.

Apart from the windows being open and directional markings on the floor, it's business as usual. The photographs in the newspapers of classrooms with tables far apart and education workers socially distanced are a farce. Children are crammed in with tables facing the front and there's no distancing in primary schools, just a fragile bubble.

Classrooms are cold with the windows open all the time and some schools are providing extra clothing for families so their children can layer up. All this is unsustainable. We need to be ready to take union-wide action. We need to look to the bus drivers and French teachers, and fight for schools to be included in lockdown. We need to protect our staff, students and community.

Full return to school meant social distancing became impossible

A seriously concerned Learning Support Assistant

I work as a Learning Support Assistant in an SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) school for learners aged 11-21, many of whom are extremely vulnerable and have underlying health conditions. After the first lockdown, I was impressed by the way the school handled the safe return and reintegration of students to the school. Temperatures were taken at the front entrance, students with symptoms were sent home, and a rota separating staff and students into small bubbles ensured that cases could easily be isolated.

Having vulnerable family members, I was anxious that the measures put in place in the summer term would continue to be maintained in September, however they were not. On returning we were told by the headteacher that the school had a woefully inadequate supply of PPE. The list was given as follows: ten testing kits, 50 masks, one box of disposable aprons, and one bottle of disinfectant spray.

Moreover, we were told that, counter to the extra funding promised for dealing with the crisis, the school had had the same amount deducted from their budget, in effect gaining nothing. It was clear that, despite government promises, the allocation of PPE and emergency funding to the school was a 'tick-box' exercise at best, and at worst, an outright lie.

A full return to school meant that social distancing became impossible to maintain given the sheer numbers staff and students. The school had pretty much returned to how it was before the March lockdown. Temperatures were not being taken, students with symptoms were not sent home, and hygiene standards became lax.

The nature of students with learning disabilities is that many of them cannot comprehend, and struggle to maintain, social distancing and basic hygiene rules. Since September, I have been in contact with students who do not cover their hands when sneezing, smear mucus and other bodily fluids on staff, frequently hug staff, and neither recognise black and yellow tape as a warning nor an obstacle to accessing play equipment and objects forbidden from use. The net result of all this is that our school was forced to close its doors nearly a week before the half-term break due to the numbers of Covid cases.

Schools are failing to keep children safe

A Bristol teacher

Dark humour and stress are all that's keeping schools open. Jokes about the superhero power of school gates that prevent Covid-19 from entering, are the only parts of light relief. Staff are juggling educating those in the classroom and those isolating. At the same time as constantly battling schools trying to cut safety measures, which are hitting schools' dwindling budgets.

Classrooms are fuller than ever with bubbles, that were already too large, growing with staff absence. Colleagues are working across year groups with 30 to 150 children a day, as 'catch-up' is prioritised over safety.

Staff are frazzled as they try to balance students' learning and fears, with ridiculous pressures, such as those from Ofsted last week - apparently schools are sending students home too readily! Schools are doing their best to follow ever-changing government guidance, which currently says if you have been in direct contact with someone positive you must self-isolate. As those children and young people who are sent home don't have to be tested, it leaves staff and students in school terrified that they may also have contracted it, putting their own and families' lives at risk.

And all through this we're working in rooms with no heating and wide-open windows. Children are already wearing jumpers and coats and we're yet to hit winter temperatures. It's my job to keep them safe in school, yet there's nothing I can do about the shivering but hand out coats and request again that the heating's put on.

Schools are failing to provide children with the basic needs to be kept warm and to be kept safe. That's why members of the Socialist Party in Education, and others we work with, are putting pressure on the National Education Union to take decisive action including balloting members to strike.

Schools have now created robust programmes to support learning at home, with on-line and paper-based resources that were not ready in March. Learning could easily continue at home. Following a complete lockdown, rotas on part-time school-based learning could keep bubbles smaller and minimise risks faced by staff and students on a daily basis.

For this lockdown to be effective, it needs to include schools. Would you eat Wotsits while cleaning your teeth? Allowing thousands of students and staff mixing in every town and city in the country will not bring the death rate down. This is not the education we need! We demand unions force the government to put the safety of our young people, education staff and communities first, and close all schools with immediate effect.

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In The Socialist 11 November 2020:


Capitalists vs working class - not in it together

Tory U-turn: Free school meals

Tory U-turn: Furlough extended - not enough to save jobs

Covid and poverty rising - Welsh lockdown ends with little progress

Covid law used against striking workers - for workers' control of safety measures

Schools need union action for safety

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Selling the Socialist

Review and readers' opinion

Trotsky's ideas live on in the CWI

The Socialist Inbox

Readers of the Socialist react to effects of lockdown


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