Union demands special virus cleaning and advises only teachers who must return to go back before August 11
By Jim Halfpenny, of the EIS (Educational Institute of Scotland)
The past few weeks of this COVID 19 pandemic has left staff, pupils and parents understandably anxious about the planned reopening of schools.
The UK Government strategy has been one of zig-zags and confusion from the very beginning of this crisis .
This, and over a decade of austerity, have added to the number of both NHS staff and patients dying in hospitals, as well as the wholly unacceptable level of deaths in care homes. With Scotland and the UK almost at the top of the death rates, in relation to the size of population, workers and their families have lost confidence in Government strategy.
As part of the austerity drive, stockpiles of personal protective equipment (PPE) designed to cope with such a pandemic had been drastically cut back. The value of the stockpile had fallen by 40% between 2013 and 2019.
The demand by the EIS, UNISON, UNITE and GMB trade unions for full PPE to be supplied to Home Care staff fell on deaf ears as the scientific advice was that this level of PPE was not required.
Common sense suggested otherwise as the death toll mounted. It was clear to us that such scientific advice was being filtered through a Government that was trying to disguise its deliberate lack of preparation for such a pandemic. Regrettably, the Scottish Government failed to pursue an independent line until recently.
Based on this experience, the reopening of schools must put us on our guard.
The primary schools campus at Balloch, one of many where teachers should be wary about returning. Picture by Bill Heaney
Clearly, it will be a difficult, if not impossible, task to stop transmission of the virus among young children, particularly in settings where education is so dependent on play and sharing of toys and equipment.
Equally, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to maintain any effective social distancing in schools particularly, again, among the youngest pupils even with reduced class sizes. There are also many scientists who question the effectiveness of social distancing in enclosed environments, where contact is over considerable periods of time.
Parents will be bringing their children to and from school, potentially accelerating the transmission of the virus from children to adults and from one family to another.
The Scottish Government says the date of August 11th is a target which will only be realised if it is safe to do so.
To that end, the EIS insists that a return to schools can only be considered when,
- We can identify that there is a low level of infection in the community and this requires access to live data on infection rates locally. This will be critical for West Dunbartonshire which exhibits one of highest infection rates in the country.
- Regular testing of staff with a “test, trace and isolate policy” fully up and running. At present we are nowhere near that stage.
- Clear protocols for isolation of adult and child contacts when illness develops in school.
- Safeguards for vulnerable pupils and staff.
- A sufficient and appropriate supply of PPE. We cannot allow the same ”mistakes” to be made that devastated the Care Homes.
- A recent EIS survey highlighted that we have a significant number of members with underlying health conditions (20%) and shielding responsibilities (17.5%). The Scottish Government advice hasn’t changed, and teachers will continue to be advised to work from home if they are within a shielded or vulnerable group.
- The opening of the schools in June is not about teachers rushing back to classrooms. Only those that have to go in should do so. Much of the preparation for August will be achievable from home. Bringing some pupils in before the summer break would be incredibly foolish.
- An effective cleaning regime to clean schools at least once a day with training and resources to carry out effective ‘deep cleans’. At present, Councils across the the country are unable to achieve this because of years of budget cuts.
- Regular risk assessments will need to take place, in consultation with Local Authority unions, to ensure that these essential first steps are achieved. Until then schools will not be safe environments for staff, children or parents.
When we do return, education will have been transformed. The concept of “blended learning” (some pupils in school and some learning at home) will be the new norm. On the back of outstanding work by teachers during this lockdown, we will all be pulling together in the hope that this works for our pupils.
We also recognise that the poorest children often have the greatest difficulty with remote learning. For West Dunbartonshire this is a particular problem and one that will take extra resources to overcome both in school and in the community. This will not be achievable if we continue with the year on year cuts to public services.