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Student and staff safety is paramount, education unions warn government

Child writing

Unions have sent a list of key measures to the government which they say must be met before pupils in England can safely return to their desks.

It includes extra money for deep cleaning and personal protective equipment (PPE) and local powers to close schools if clusters of coronavirus (Covid-19) infections break out in a particular area.

Last week, an NHS chief warned the government it should be wary about reopening schools too early as scientists do not fully understand the extent of coronavirus transmission between children.

The joint union statement was sent to education secretary Gavin Williamson on Friday by bodies including the NAHT school leaders’ union and the National Education Union (NEU). GMB, Unison and Unite were also among the authors of the statement.

Safety of pupils and staff is paramount

Published by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), the letter called for:

clear scientific published evidence that trends in transmission of Covid-19 will not be adversely impacted by the reopening phase and that schools are also safe to reopen

The “essential” tests include:

– Safety and welfare of pupils and staff as the paramount principle
– No increase in pupil numbers until full rollout of a national test and trace scheme
– A national coronavirus education taskforce with government, unions and education stakeholders to agree statutory guidance for safe reopening
– Consideration of the specific needs of vulnerable students and families facing financial hardship
– Additional resources for enhanced school cleaning, PPE and risk assessments
– Local autonomy to close schools where testing indicates clusters of new coronavirus cases

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said:

Parents and staff need full confidence that schools will be safe before any pupils return.

The Government must work closely with unions to agree a plan that meets the tests we have set out.

Those discussions must include unions representing all school workers, not just teachers. The best way to do this is through a national taskforce for safe schools, with Government, unions and education stakeholders.

Frances O’Grady
Frances O’Grady (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Opposition response

Labour’s shadow education secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey called on the Government to “take heed of the tests set out today by trade unions and commit to not opening schools unless they have been met”. She said:

The primary consideration before opening schools has to be the safety of pupils, their families and staff.

Schools should not open until it is safe to do so and the Government must commit to work with trade unions and others to agree a set of principles and tests to put safety systems in place in advance of any planned reopening.

Last week at the Downing Street daily news conference, NHS England’s national medical director Professor Stephen Powis said the “science is still evolving” on how much children contribute towards virus spread.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has vowed the Government will only allow pupils to return when it was safe to do so.

Featured image via pxfuel

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