How Safe Is It to Reopen Our Schools?

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 20 May 2020
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered:

In this time of unprecedented uncertainty one thing is certain, it is a time of change. Society has proved to be much more adaptable to change than was thought possible. Aspects of life that seemed “set in stone” only a few weeks ago have been swept away and many “sacred cows” have had to go. Church services are a prime example, with online services allowing people a new kind of freedom to access spiritual comfort without regard to formerly accepted norms.  I believe that education, too, will undergo significant change, not least in the normalisation of online learning, assessment and Zoom-type conferencing.

Of course, these changes are already coming at a cost, particularly to vulnerable and disadvantaged children and we must try to resolve these equally serious problems. The BBC has reported that Anne Longfield, the Children's Commissioner for England, has said that the government and teachers' unions should "stop squabbling and agree a plan" to reopen schools, understanding that they cannot be made completely safe until a vaccine is produced.

She stressed that it was time to consider the needs of the many disadvantaged children who are losing out because of schools being closed for so long and balance this with the very small risks to public health. It seems however, that the two sides in the argument are still very far apart.  Speaking for the government, Minister Michael Gove agreed that, while it is not possible to make schools completely safe, as a country we have reached a point of needing to decide on acceptable levels of risk in all aspects of coming out of lockdown.

BBC Breakfast interviewed Kevin Courtney, General Secretary of the National Education Union, following a meeting the previous day between teachers' leaders and the government's scientific advisers. It was clear that the two sides did not agree how to safely return pupils to the classroom.  He raised the question that there is no evidence that schools are safer than any other setting to work in. Logically, therefore, the teachers’ representatives argue that school staff should be equally entitled to the same PPE and safety protocols as other frontline workers.  

The outcome of the meeting was that no clear answers have been given to the 5 tests the National Education Union have asked the Government to meet, before recommending to teachers and teaching assistants that it is safe to return to work.  What is clear is that, as reported in The Guardian on May 15th, compulsion on teachers to return against their will or better judgement could potentially precipitate legal action from the NAS/UWT. The NEU points out that in England:

 “... employees still have their individual and statutory employment rights with regard to health & safety, including protection against dismissal should they refuse to attend an unsafe workplace.”

On May 14th the BBC reported on the relative risk of different work roles:

“...most of the jobs that have a high exposure to both disease and other people are healthcare professions, while those who scored low on both measures include artists, lawyers and those in more typical office jobs like marketing, HR and financial advisers. But the people who might be most at risk to a new infectious disease like Covid-19, are those who have lots of close contact with people, but aren't used to being exposed to disease, like bar staff, hairdressers, actors, taxi drivers and bricklayers.”

The National Education Union’s point is that school staff also fall into this last category.

In the Northern Ireland Department of Education Guidance to Schools re Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). it states:

“...scientific advice indicates that educational staff do not require personal protective equipment.”

Equally in the DE Guidance to schools in England it states re Personal protective equipment (PPE) including face coverings and face masks:

“...the guidance does not recommend wearing a face covering or face mask in schools or other education settings in England.”

The Teachers Leaders, therefore, are asking for assurances for workers in schools in terms of five tests, namely: 

  • Much lower numbers of Covid-19 cases;
  • A national plan for social distancing;
  • Comprehensive access to regular testing for children and staff;
  • Whole school strategy/Protocols to be put in place to test a whole school or college when a case occurs; and
  • Isolation to be strictly followed and protection for the vulnerable staff.

In Northern Ireland, unions like the NAS/UWT have comprehensive guidance for schools on re-opening. They too emphasise the onus is on employers to ensure a safe workplace. 

The guidance sets out clear safety measures and stresses, like the NEU document, the need for care regarding staff who have underlying medical conditions (as defined in government guidance); staff who are subject to shielding or are in a household where someone is shielding; and staff who are self-isolating and staff on maternity or any other form of leave, and will, therefore, not be available for work and the availability of supply staff to cover any vacancies or long-term absences.

The Sunday Times leader of May 17th, on the other hand, feels that the tide is turning in favour of reopening schools sooner, with school leader organisations ASCL and the NAHT supporting the move in the light of advice they have been given by the government’s chief scientific and medical officers.  The caveats around exempting clinically vulnerable staff or those with vulnerable people at home are not in dispute but the prospect of teachers wearing PPE is deemed too alarming for children. The main obstacle for the government now seems to be lack of parental confidence in sending pupils to school. 

So, in this time of uncertainty and change, are we as a society able to adjust to the new realities and factor in the small degree of risk there will be in all aspects of life going forward?  As retail outlets, churches and public services develop new approaches to social interaction, schools are next in line to try and make this work. 

I fully understand the concerns of unions for the wellbeing of workers, but I also have confidence in the high degree of organisational ability in our schools to make this difficult situation work. Here in Northern Ireland we may be spared the worst of this dilemma if the wider pandemic context becomes less threatening by September. If we can suspend our traditional expectations, I am sure our confidence levels will improve.


This article is correct at 20/05/2020

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

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