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Gavin Williamson, Photo: Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Gavin Williamson, Photo: Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

With rising infection rates, we need to confront Tory failures and campaign hard for safe and sustainable schools, argues David McAllister

Two weeks in to the new term and over 1,000 schools already have cases of Covid-19.  For all the Tories’ rhetoric about a ‘return to normal’ for schools and other workplaces, the lack of testing facilities and other safety measures mean that schools have been put in an often impossible situation, putting thousands of teachers, children and parents in an unforgivable level of danger.

Back in May, the National Education Union (NEU) was demonised in the press for being 'obstructive'.  The bottom line, we were told, was that children need an education, parents need to return to work, and that the ‘radical’ agenda of teachers was ‘holding the country to ransom’.

In addition to the fact that thousands of teachers never stopped working – keeping schools running for key worker children, and ensuring those at home had education resources – our position was incredibly simple.  Schools should only be fully up and running when it is safe.

We knew that this naturally extended to the wider working population, many of whom are parents. Without adequate safety measures, and a robust and accessible mass testing system, any 'return to normal' would be untenable and lead to chaos.

In the end, it was a combination of strong national campaigning from the NEU and defiance from parents which succeeded in severely limiting the return to schools on June 1.

But now here we are, two weeks into a full return for schools.  The Tories have pushed their ‘return to normal’ without adequate safety measures or an accessible testing system.  Lo and behold, there is chaos. The arguments made by the NEU back in May have been utterly vindicated.

Schools have been pretty much left alone with the impossible task of providing a safe working and learning environment. Despite the best effort of teachers and their union reps, this was always going to be limited.

With some of the largest class sizes in Europe, and a lack of physical space to match, social distancing pretty much went out the window on the first day.  Even in small primaries, separating classes and year groups into bubbles still means that around thirty children (that’s thirty households) are crammed together in one space for six hours.  As for secondaries, with their frequently packed corridors during lesson changes, social distancing is a complete non-starter.

The main cause of this chaos is of course the ongoing farce of testing. Six months since the WHO declared a pandemic, the government still don’t seem to grasp that you cannot control the spread of a virus if you don’t know who has it

This is why up to 25,000 teachers in England are now self-isolating, leaving schools badly short-staffed and, in many cases, forced to stretch their already delicate budgets with supply cover.  Some schools are reporting that one fifth of their staff are absent while they struggle to get a test. This has led to the whole or partial closure of hundreds of state schools.

The stress this puts on already overworked staff is obvious.  Lack of testing access also means that some parents and teachers are forced to travel long distances.  One primary school in Durham, where 38 people have already been tested, reports that some parents are making 100-mile round trips just to ensure they can send their children back to school safely.

This is not a return which protects the health and wellbeing of adults and children, as the government insists.  It also exposes Kier Starmer’s ‘no ifs, no buts’ rhetoric about school reopening as utter nonsense.  We need an opposition which actually opposes what the government is doing, not craven kowtowing.

Allowing this to continue will lead to the chaos of mounting closures, partial closures and more local lockdowns – and of course, a rising number of cases and deaths.  Effectively, a re-run of the turmoil faced by children, teachers and families in March and throughout the Summer.

Accessible testing is the central demand which needs to be made in every single school and community.  This means we need reachable testing facilities in every locality, with quick returns on results.  This is where the NEU and its members need to focus its campaigning energies.  Of course, we all want education to continue with as little disruption as possible, but the Tories have catastrophically failed to deliver that.  Any ‘return to normal’ which comes at the cost of health and safety is completely unacceptable and unsustainable.

In addition to this, we need to be demanding that the funding and resources are made available for extra staff and physical space to allow social distancing to be more practicable.  Teaching unions have called for smaller class sizes for years, but this is now more vital than ever.  Learning resources and technology should also be made available for children and families who need to self-isolate.

This is not just about protecting schools; this is about wider communities in which schools are often the most densely populated buildings.  The more infections are able to spread round a school, the more likely they are to spread outside of it, via public transport and at home, putting extended family members and the most vulnerable at particular risk.

As we enter the third week of term, it is now clear that, once again, schools are the cutting edge issue when it comes to controlling the pandemic.  Campaigns such as North East: Campaign4SafeSchools and BRTUS: Parents United are examples of how we should respond.  Parents, teachers and other workers need to campaign with a very clear message on what safe and sustainable schooling looks like, because that certainly isn’t coming from Johnson’s government.

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