UNISON’s recommendations for safer re-opening of schools in England
The government announced on 27 January that it hopes to re-open schools in England on 8 March. UNISON believes that school re-opening should only happen when the science says it is safe, when school risk assessments have been updated, and when appropriate safety measures have been introduced.
We must ensure that schools do not become ‘vectors of transmission’ again. It is vital that the Department for Education (DfE) allows for a staggered approach so that a sudden re-opening does not increase local transmission rates. We believe a phased return and the ability to have flexible rota systems would help to make schools safer.
In a noticeable change in policy, the DfE has constructively engaged with UNISON and other unions in the last few weeks. We are hopeful that this new relationship will result in improved guidance that will make the full return to schools safer.
UNISON has outlined several key measures for schools below that we believe the DfE should implement before schools fully re-open:
Allow schools to use a rota system/blended learning when schools re-open.
Split classes into smaller groups to keep bubble sizes as small as possible. If necessary, give schools additional funding to hire extra staff and space to accommodate them. Small bubbles, rotas, and a phased return would help to ensure 2m social distancing.
Keep staff and pupils within one bubble (except for emergencies) to reduce the risk of cross-transmission and wider closures.
Subject to a risk assessment, provide appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), including medical-grade masks, for staff administering first aid, medical care or personal care activities where social distancing cannot be maintained, for example in some special schools and nurseries.
Staff and pupils in secondary schools should wear face coverings in all areas of the school, including classrooms. There should be an urgent review of the international evidence for face coverings for pupils in primary schools. Stocks of face coverings, including clear face coverings that facilitate lip-reading, should be made available.
Mass testing can be used as an additional tool, alongside the full maintenance of all other preventative measures such as isolation of contacts of those with symptoms. Home tests must be backed up by access to more reliable PCR tests.
As part of re-opening, the DfE should ask the government to prioritise vaccinating school staff.
Provide additional national guidance on ventilation in schools and support local reviews of ventilation in all schools prior to wider re-opening. This guidance should include advice on minimum safe temperatures for classrooms. Classrooms and other school areas with unsafe ventilation should not be used.
Clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) and clinically vulnerable (CV) staff should continue to work from home on full pay until risk from the virus has significantly reduced.
The DfE should issue urgent guidance requiring that all outsourced staff in schools, such as catering and cleaning staff, must receive full pay when they are required to self-isolate, without any impact on their sickness absence record.
School staff should not be expected to take on tasks that are beyond their job description or that they are not fully trained and renumerated for. It is unfair to depend on support staff to take on additional work when they have already gone the extra mile to support pupils throughout the pandemic.
UNISON fully supports catch-up programmes, but they must be properly resourced by the government, with full consideration of the existing financial, administrative, and workload pressures that schools face. Any catch-up programmes should not result in additional workload pressures on already overworked school staff.
Apply public transport rules on social distancing and face coverings to all school transport.
Provide additional funding to cover any additional costs incurred by schools to implement these measures. Schools will need additional financial support to re-open safely.
Nursery classes and early years Although nursery classes have not been formally restricted to vulnerable children and the children of critical workers, many nursery classes have restricted the number of children in classes.
As pupil numbers increase, schools will need to continue to risk assess the impact of increased numbers, particularly around expanding bubbles.
We recognise that social distancing is impossible in an early years settings. When CEV and CV staff are no longer at high risk from community transmission and they choose to continue to work at their early years settings, consideration should be given to finding these staff alternative roles where social distancing can be applied.
Please see the document below for a list of questions and answers relating to COVID-19 testing within schools
The DfE has informed the LA that UNISON has withdrawn section 44 advice to its members. We’ve seen a copy of this letter. (Section 44 is the legislation on the statute books that gives employees the right to withdraw from an unsafe workplace without detriment, as used in our model letter for school employees).
We have been told by national UNISON that Gavin Williamson has misrepresented UNISON’s views.
The LA has advised schools earlier today that the section 44 advice has been withdrawn.
The branch has received no advice from head office that our section 44 advice has been withdrawn.
We expect that UNISON will make a national statement on this later.
Following the government’s announcement of mass testing in schools in the New Year, UNISON’s National Schools Committee secured a meeting with the Department for Education (DfE) and NHS Test and Trace, to take place on Tuesday 22 December. The government also announced that secondary schools and other schools with secondary-age pupils will move to online learning (except for the children of key workers and vulnerable children) in the first week of the winter term (4 January). The aim is to allow mass testing of all pupils and staff in those schools during the opening week.
UNISON believes this is hugely ambitious and that announcing this on the last day of term is jaw-dropping and gives schools very little time to plan. We think that most schools will not be able to deliver this.
Taking this into account and looking at the materials that the DfE has provided so far, the committee’s initial position is:
• We support mass testing in schools to try to stop the spread of the virus (on a sensible timetable) • Any testing site in a school must be fully planned and risk assessed with union engagement • Staff should only undertake the testing duty if they volunteer, and if they are comfortable with their competence after appropriate training – in line with Department for Education guidance ‘Supporting pupils at school with medical conditions’. • Staff involved in the testing programme should have correct PPE, appropriate clinical oversight and clear guarantees around any potential liabilities • The work of staff volunteering to participate should not be passed to other current staff, who are already overworked. • Any additional staff time must be fully paid at the appropriate rate • Due to the reported high percentage of false negatives generated by the ‘lateral flow test’ being proposed it should only be used as an additional measure. Bubbles and self-isolation, alongside all additional other safety measures, should be retained for the foreseeable future. • Staff asked to take a test themselves as part of a mass lateral flow testing programme where cases have not been identified may do so voluntarily, but it should not be compulsory. UNISON encourages staff to participate fully in the testing programme.
Next Following our meeting with the DfE we will issue guidance for UNISON members for next term. In the meantime if you are being asked to do anything that contradicts the above points contact us for advice.
UNISON members in Coventry have lots of opportunities to enhance your knowledge and skills with support from your Union. Find out more via the link to our 2017/18 Education and Learning booklet – Education & Learning booklet 1718
The government’s funding announcement last Monday is disappointing. It means a return to smoke and mirrors statements on school funding. UNISON has said that whilst any extra money is welcome, it isn’t enough to stop the huge cuts that schools are making.
Calculations published on the School Cuts organisations’ website show that under the Conservative Party’s manifesto plans for school funding, schools faced a loss of £11.6 billion in real terms between 2015/16 and 2021/22. The extra money pledged today is not sufficient to make up this loss. The government says it will ensure no school faces loss of funding in cash terms. In real terms, inflation will mean schools will be £2.1bn worse off in 2019/20 even after this increase is implemented.
Schools are already cutting curriculum choices, activities for pupils and teaching and support staff posts. Richard Harty, Coventry UNISON Schools’ Lead said “We are calling on the government to find further additional funding to protect all schools and avoid damaging cuts to children’s education…We are already seeing job losses in some schools in Coventry”.
As this is not new money, the government has been forced to reallocate money from a range of areas. For example, £280m will come from the free schools’ programme. The National Audit Office has questioned if this programme provides value for money. Nevertheless, the government now expects local authorities to fund 30 of the 140 planned schools.
This government announcement shows the power of the school cuts campaign run by unions, parents, politicians and local communities. We will continue to build the campaign. We call on the Government to find ‘new’ money to protect all schools in real terms and avoid these damaging cuts to children’s education.”
UNISON National Head of Education Jon Richards said: “Considerable extra money is needed to reverse the damage already done. Teachers and pupils are paying a high price because support staff have been axed…The loss of these jobs with other cuts is placing school children at risk. The government should be investing in their futures.”