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Year 1 classroom, classroom, Hallfield Primary School, Paddington. Photo: Geograph

Year 1 classroom, classroom, Hallfield Primary School, Paddington. Photo: Geograph

Teachers have been working in the interests of children all through lockdown: the government hasn't, argues David McAllister

The impact of Covid-19 has been harrowing. In addition to the high number of deaths amongst healthcare workers, figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) report that at least 65 teachers and other education staff have also died. This number should not be allowed to climb any higher. With the case number and death rate showing no significant or sustained decline, the government's current proposal to reopen schools to several year groups on June 1st, without any serious plans for health and safety, is nothing short of criminally reckless.

The central demand from the National Education Union (NEU) has been its five tests for safe reopening of schools. These include a much a lower case count than at present, a national plan for social distancing, a rigorous testing regime with whole-school strategy, and a plan to protect vulnerable members of staff. Not one of these has been met. The government’s own ‘tests’ for wider reopening are completely inadequate.

On the day Johnson’s ‘lockdown’ started, there were 60 deaths from coronavirus, whereas the figure on Tuesday this week was 545. This is notwithstanding the consistent underreporting of the death rate outside of hospitals. 

Thanks to the failure to provide mass testing, the infection rate is also difficult to judge. Official data indicate that this has only just dipped below 3,000 new cases a day. Even amongst those who survive the disease, it has often shown to be extremely damaging to health and it can take a number of weeks to recover.  The evidence simply isn’t there for it being safe enough to reopen schools in less than two weeks on the scale being proposed.

The claim from education secretary, Gavin Williamson, that he is ‘mirroring’ the apparently successful re-opening of schools in Denmark, is simply a lie. Firstly, the UK has nearly twice as many coronavirus cases per million of the population as Denmark, and over five times as many deaths. Secondly, Danish schools have a centralised plan for social distancing, including during break times, whereas in the UK we have the handwringing of social distancing ‘where possible’ and a maximum class size of 15 – practically impossible given the size of most UK classrooms. 

What is also significant about Denmark's approach is that, unlike the UK, they are not simply leaving this planning to school leaders. Each local authority has an officer in place to oversee the implementing of social distancing and other measures. Whatever Gavin Williamson thinks he is ‘mirroring’, it certainly isn’t Denmark.

The smears from the right wing press against teachers and the NEU over the last few days have been disgraceful. What often isn't reported is that teachers have actually continued to work throughout the last eight weeks, looking after children of key workers and supporting home learning for others. They haven't just been sitting around. They want to be back in the classroom, just not at the expense of safety.

As for the claims that we are being 'obstructive', the NEU has repeatedly asked for the government to make available the scientific evidence which supports wider reopening on June 1st so that it can be verified by independent bodies such as SAGE. The fact that the government has failed do this (perhaps because the science isn't there) is the real obstruction. This is about safety and accountability. Teachers, like any workforce, are entitled to ensure that their safety is guaranteed before re-entering the workplace, and have the right to refuse if it is unsafe.

Finally, this is not just an issue which concerns teachers. A school is generally the most densely populated building in any community, and can rapidly become a virus hotspot if there is no strict plan to control its spread. So this is an issue for every community in the country. The government have no plan protect vulnerable staff, family members, or other vulnerable people in the community.

The fact that Early Years and Year 1 are being sent back first makes it clear that this is primarily about childcare and getting parents back to work. This underlines the importance of teachers to the basic functioning of society, but it also gives the lie to the claim that the government are motivated by educational concerns. The same is true of the hypocrisy of highlighting the plight of disadvantaged children. It is economically disadvantaged areas where the virus poses the biggest threat.  Also, we shouldn't forget that ten years of Tory austerity has taken the child poverty rate to over four million. So let's not take any lessons from them about social disadvantage.

The NEU is organising to push back against this dangerous and reckless plan. 20,000 members tuned into Zoom for the biggest online union meeting in history on Monday. I urge everyone to do anything they can to join and support this fight. Write to your MP and local authority to express your concerns, join a union if you're not already in one, and get involved in the People's Assembly. This is battle for everyone, between workers who want to protect lives and government which wants to protect profit. We need your support.

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