Sarah Kilpatrick a secondary school teacher in Gateshead and Assistant Secretary of her NEU branch. Source: Counterfire Sarah Kilpatrick a secondary school teacher in Gateshead and Assistant Secretary of her NEU branch. Source: Counterfire

Sarah Kilpatrick, a secondary school teacher in Gateshead and Assistant Secretary of her NEU branch, looks at why fulfilling NEU’s five tests are critical for the safe opening of schools

In early March I started hearing the same question from friends overseas: ‘Why are your schools still open?’

As fellow teachers, parents, and concerned citizens, they were all gobsmacked by the UK Government’s inaction on what was at that stage already an undeniably global crisis. In the days that followed we kept waiting for the announcement that we knew had to come, and we kept going into work.

Providing PPE at that point would have been a laughable suggestion; many of us had no access to soap and water. Even the paper towels in the Art Department I work in are a strictly rationed luxury; we cut them into smaller pieces to make them last longer. I started bringing in hand sanitiser to share with my students, but we knew it wasn’t enough. My colleagues and I worked for hours preparing paper versions of the online work that we knew many of our students would be unable to access at home. When the announcement finally came, I felt relieved, but I also felt immense sadness for my students, particularly my Year 11s, now robbed of their remaining time in education.

These last few days have been a difficult time to be a teacher in England. We have been told to ‘find our courage’ and return to our classrooms. We have been accused of ‘using this lockdown for a bit of a rest’ and denounced as ‘the blob’ (a term fed to the press in 2014 by Michael Gove when the profession dared to criticise the damaging changes he forced through). Then, as now, our only crime is voicing an opinion in our field of expertise. Mr. Gove, like so many of his friends in government, has no time for experts.

If we consider the overwhelming evidence of the danger of COVID-19 we were provided within March, and the extended time period in which we knew the threat was looming, we don’t need the expertise to see that our government has failed to act to protect us from the start of the crisis. This failure has cost us the lives of tens of thousands of people in this country, where the death toll is now the second-highest in the world. On the day we were finally placed under lockdown, there were 143 reported deaths linked to Covid-19 in the UK. The day after Boris Johnson announced that he wants to reopen our schools, 210 deaths were reported linked to Covid-19, with a further 3877 confirmed cases of the virus.

Let me make it clear that when we talk about reopening schools, what we mean is that schools will open more fully. They have never truly closed. Children of keyworkers, children with an EHCP, children who are vulnerable-many have still been attending. School staff have still been going into work. Many of those worked through the Easter holidays and on the recent bank holiday. We are providing online learning for our students, we’re answering their questions over email, we’re phoning them at home to check on their wellbeing, we’re dealing with parental concerns. In the course of just a few days of the beginning of lockdown, my profession had completely reimagined what a school is and how it works.

We care deeply about our students. This is not a profession you remain in unless you truly love it, and this is the great misunderstanding the government has about us. They constantly underestimate our passion, our commitment, and our bloody-minded tenacity to stay and to fight to improve education. They feel threatened by us, and that’s why they’ve waged a decade-long battle to undermine us and belittle our work.

The National Education Union has recommended five tests that the government needs to meet before we can even think about opening schools more fully. By any rational measure, we are nowhere near meeting these five tests and therefore we cannot engage in planning for action that will undoubtedly cause a surge in cases and inevitably, an even higher death toll. A petition launched by the NEU has already been signed by over 400,000 people, all of whom agree that we should only open schools when it is safe to do so.

Within an hour of Johnson’s speech on 10 May, 49,000 NEU members had responded to a survey in which 92% said that they would not feel safe reopening schools as proposed by the Prime Minister. The NEU has been consistently strong in their response to this crisis, and have gained thousands of new members in the process, with many current members stepping up to become workplace reps.

The route out of this crisis is through clear communication and unity across the workforce. We must work together to challenge the government. There is no better way to protect our workers and their families than by a strong trade union response, and the TUC has been doing excellent work in facilitating and coordinating this. As well as the support from our sister unions, NEU welcomes the letter signed by thousands of NHS workers which calls for greater protections for education workers.

When the time to reopen schools does come, we will be delighted to be back with our students and to see our own children happy to be back with their friends in their own schools. But we know that the workforce will be sadly diminished by the loss of the teachers, teaching assistants, cleaners, cooks, and site staff who have already died during this crisis. There will come a day of reckoning for this government. Their choices and decisions, their inability to act have cost the lives of many thousands. Never has there been a clearer indictment of the appalling inequality in our society, now visible for everyone to see.

So here we are, barely eight weeks since the lockdown was imposed. Every day we are seeing hundreds of more deaths announced and thousands of new cases confirmed. My friends overseas have started getting in touch again, and this time they’re asking me, ‘Is it really true, that they’re reopening your schools?!’

I’d like to end, if you don’t mind, by reading a list. It’s not exhaustive by any means, sadly, but it contains the names of some of those we have lost from our classrooms during this crisis. Remember their names.

Sandra Martin a teaching assistant from Bolton with an enormous heart
Pamela Mistry a fifty-year-old teaching assistant from Brent
Melvin Gwanzura head of Psychology at a sixth form college in Kensington
Gill Labrum CEO of Windsor Learning Partnership
Katie Horne a ‘happy’ 21-year-old nursery worker from Burgess Hill
Barrie Ashley a site staff member from Oldham who ‘lit up the school corridors’
Louisa Rajakumari a ‘highly talented and dedicated’ teacher from Newham
Michael Issitt a ‘kind, funny and caring’ primary teacher from Plymouth
Rabbi Avroham Pinter principal of Yesoday Hatorah Girls’ School in Hackney
Gerry McHugh an ‘inspiring’ teacher of Maths in Greenock
Kate Fox a ‘much loved’ literacy teacher in Dudley
Emma Clarke a ‘brilliant’ Science teacher from Halton
Indro Sen a ‘highly regarded’ Maths teacher and union rep from Brent
Ann Pittman a primary teacher and sports coach from Lewisham
Carole Flynn a learning mentor and ‘heart and soul of her school’ in Coventry
Wendy Jacobs a ‘caring and popular’ primary school head from Cumbria

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