Coronavirus: Unions urge government to 'step back' from June 1 school reopening plan

Unions representing hundreds of thousands of school teachers, leaders and support staff have called on the government to “step back” from its plan to have some pupils return to schools on June 1.

A joint statement from unions in the Trades Union Congress with education members, including teachers’ unions the NEU and NASUWT, leadership union the NAHT and support staff unions Unison and the GMB, warned that under the government’s plans, school staff “will not be protected by social distancing rules”.

It comes after leaders of two of the unions urged members not to engage with plans to reopen schools to reception, year 1 and year 6 pupils on June 1.

The joint statement said: “We all want schools to re-open, but that should only happen when it is safe to do so. The government is showing a lack of understanding about the dangers of the spread of coronavirus within schools, and outwards from schools to parents, sibling and relatives, and to the wider community.

“Uniquely, it appears, school staff will not be protected by social distancing rules. 15 children in a class, combined with their very young age, means that classrooms of 4 and 5-year olds could become sources of Covid-19 transmission and spread. While we know that children generally have mild symptoms, we do not know enough about whether they can transmit the disease to adults. We do not think that the government should be posing this level of risk to our society.

“We call on the government to step back from the 1st June and work with us to create the conditions for a safe return to schools based on the principles and tests we have set out.”

The principles and tests are as follows…

  • 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 Covid-19 education taskforce with government, unions and education stakeholders to agree statutory guidance for safe reopening of schools
  • Consideration of the specific needs of vulnerable students and families facing economic disadvantage
  • Additional resources for enhanced school cleaning, PPE and risk assessments
  • Local autonomy to close schools where testing indicates clusters of new covid-19 cases

It comes after two unions representing hundreds of thousands of school staff urged their members not to engage with planning for a June 1 return.

Unison, which represents school support staff and the National Education Union, had told members “not to engage” with school reopening plans until further guidance was issued.

When asked on Good Morning Britain this morning what his advice for members would be should schools open in June, Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “If we’re not convinced that it’s safe, we’ll say to members we’re not convinced it’s safe.”

He added there were legal “provisions” members could use to not go back to the classroom. It’s believed Courtney was referring to section 44 of the employment rights act 1996, which states that employees have the right “not to be subjected to any detriment” if they leave or refuse to return to work because they believe it is dangerous.

Courtney also claimed none of the education unions knew the prime minister was going to announce on Sunday that three year groups should start back in June, adding: “We asked the government to engage with us… We’ve been asking for evidence about how much the virus transmits between children, and between children to adults.

“We think we need much more scientific evidence before we can safely plan for a return to schools.”

He added: “We want to engage with government on whether this safe to go back or not.”