Staff safety questions remain as PM urges parents to send children back to school

Schools must have “very clear Covid-secure measures” for all staff, England’s largest education union has warned, as the prime minister appealed directly to parents to send their children back to school next month.

The National Education Union has also called on the government to employ more teachers and secure extra teaching spaces “to allow education to continue in a Covid secure manner if infections rise”.

This should “include employment of student teachers who have finished their courses and not yet found jobs, as well as mobilisation of supply staff,” the union said.

Ministers have mounted a campaign to get all pupils back to school in September, amid concerns that some families will keep pupils at home because of fears for their safety.

But Boris Johnson today warned that “nothing will have a greater effect on the life chances of our children than returning to school”.

The chief medical officers and deputy chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales have also issued a statement insisting they are “confident in the extensive evidence that there is an exceptionally small risk of children of primary or secondary school age dying from Covid-19”.

But the focus on transmission to pupils has prompted concerns that not enough consideration is being given to the issue of staff safety.

Current guidance states that the use of face coverings is not needed in schools, and that people who are clinically extremely vulnerable can return to work in schools from September, providing certain controls are met.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said it was “crucially important all schools have very clear Covid-secure measures, and those should apply rigorously to adults within the school”.

“We have supported schools in ensuring that all staff have the confidence to return to a working environment which is as safe as practically possible.”

Courtney said staff members and students should be allowed to wear face masks “if they wish to do so”.

“Many staff, parents and students will be anxious, and face masks will help to alleviate that anxiety. It will go some way towards ensuring there is confidence amongst parents that schools are safe places, so that in-person learning can recommence for all students, which is what we all want to see.”

He added that clinically extremely vulnerable people “could and should be allowed to work from home, given the extra risks they face”, and called on the government to respond to advice from the World Health Organisation, which states that the over-60s and other vulnerable people should wear medical-grade masks where social distancing cannot be achieved.

It comes after a Public Health England study found school staff were more likely to be affected by Covid-19 than pupils. Of the 198 confirmed cases in June, the month that schools began to reopen more widely, 128 were in staff and just 70 were in children.

It also follows reports that a special school in Dundee Scotland closed last Friday after 17 teachers, two pupils and two community contacts had contracted Covid-19. Scottish schools reopened earlier this month.

But Johnson said today: “As the chief medical officer has said, the risk of contracting Covid-19 in school is very small and it is far more damaging for a child’s development and their health and well-being to be away from school any longer.”