The UK’s biggest teaching union has advised primary school staff it is unsafe to return to classrooms on Monday as the government faces a growing revolt over its back-to-school plans.
The National Education Union (NEU) said on Saturday it would advise its members of their legal right to not have to work in an unsafe environment, after calling for every school in England to close for two weeks to control the spread of Covid-19.
Meanwhile, the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) said it has brought preliminary steps in legal proceedings against the Department for Education (DfE) joined by the Association of School and College Leaders.
The process covers a range of issues including the scientific advice the government is drawing on as well as proposals for testing in schools.
The NEU’s call for schools to be closed for in-person lessons for a fortnight after education secretary Gavin Williamson was forced to make yet another u-turn in his back-to-school plan, instructing all primary schools in London to remain closed for two weeks after the Christmas break.
With Covid infections at record levels, hundreds of deaths each day and many hospitals at breaking point, teachers and union leaders have repeatedly warned that once again allowing inevitable mixing in schools could have a devastating impact on the spread of the virus – particularly amid the emergence of the highly infectious mutant strain.
NEU joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted explained why her union was calling for schools to close for the first two weeks of term.
She told BBC Breakfast: “It will be helpful with two weeks’ Christmas break where there was mixing over Christmas and unfortunately that has raised levels of infection, but you would hope that for a month where there largely has been less mixing, viral levels will go down in the community and they will go down in schools.
“If they haven’t, then we’re in a really dangerous situation.”
Bousted said she hoped schools could implement new measures to help reduce the spread of the virus, with the additional two weeks as well as setting up testing in secondary schools, which she called to be extended to primary schools.
She continued: “Education is really, really important… but you’re not going to get that education if this virus gets out of control in the community because schools will have to close then for a longer period of time.”
The calls for every school in England to close come as teachers, parents and experts in other tier 4 areas across the country question why the blanket primary school closures announced for London on Friday could not extend to other areas.
Bousted also said her union will be holding an emergency meeting on Saturday to discuss the “chaos which is engulfing our schools”.
Outlining some of the issues, she told BBC Breakfast: “[Teachers] being told at half-past five on Twitter that the school would close next week having spent the whole Christmas preparing for the school to be open, and for safety, teachers now having to completely, over this weekend, change their teaching plans – they were going to be teaching in person, now they’re going to be providing remote learning online.
“And just the government’s inability to even read the data on different boroughs in London and work out that some of the boroughs they were proposing to close schools had lower infection rates, much lower infection rates than other boroughs where they were preparing to keep them open.
“It seems to me just to be inexplicable that the government is getting this so badly wrong.”
Williamson has also had to make hasty changes to his back-to-school plans for secondary and college students, pushing back in-person lessons back by another week for exam year students and a week further still for other years.
Secondary and college teachers and staff were told hours before breaking up for Christmas that facilities for mass testing had to be in place for January 4, and had to wait days before receiving guidance on how exactly they were to be staffed or financed.
The government promised that the military would be made available to help facilitate mass testing, but Williamson’s pledge sparked anger after it emerged that just 1,500 members of the armed forces would be on hand to help and the support would primarily be extended online as opposed to a physical presence in schools.
Asked about the rollout of mass testing in secondary schools and colleges, Bousted said the preparations were “equally chaotic”.
Test supplies are due to be delivered to schools on Monday, and Bousted said a secondary school with 1,000 pupils will need approximately 21 trained volunteers to carry it out.
She told BBC Breakfast: “We don’t think it’s the job of schools to be doing this, they have a job to do and that’s educating children.
“We believe this should be a public health organised event, we think that just as the government at the beginning of the pandemic got a million volunteers to help with the health service, we think the government should be advertising for volunteers and it should be public health leading this because it’s a public health duty to do that.
“Schools are going to find this incredibly difficult to get this up and running in time and to do it as well as public health would be doing it because they’re the health professionals.”
Dave Lee-Allan, the headteacher of Stowmarket High School in Suffolk, said the rollout of testing in secondary schools has been “frustrating”, and that it would take at least a week for his school to be operational with testing.
He outlined problems with space in the school building, as well as training and vetting the volunteers that have come forward to help.
He told BBC Breakfast: “Senior leaders in the school have now got a huge extra weight and challenge given to them as to how we operate this and this, I have to say, has been utterly chaotic, that’s the headline being used today, this whole process.”