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.
A return to school with full classes, while coronavirus remains a threat, is a key moment for the nation. Members will have mixed feelings. We have an opportunity to address education inequalities made worse by the lockdown but government guidance on full opening has not been ‘world-beating’.
School leadership teams have been working hard to upgrade their risk assessments and have the necessary arrangements in place for September.
It will not be perfect. Schools are complex environments and the risk assessments reflect this. Inevitably, some things may have been missed unintentionally. The large changes required to working practices make it likely there will be some omissions and errors.
The start of the school year is a time to set expectations and routines for the children. These boundaries get tested and are reinforced and refined.
The same is true of risk management. The risk assessment and associated documents are a ‘work in progress’, they can and should be amended as needed.
If YOU become aware of a potential hazard that does not appear to be covered by the school’s risk management, UNISON encourages you to respectfully bring it to the school’s attention, or to UNISON, so that the matter is considered.
Don’t assume that leadership already knows about it, or that it is just something that has to be put up with. Your safety is important and it is your responsibility as an employee to report hazards. A good employer will value employees who work with them to improve workplace safety.
If you become aware of a positive test result in your workplace please contact the branch for advice and support.
The branch has worked through the summer to encourage the creation of robust risk assessments. Equally important to these documents is their implementation on the ground.
Again, if YOU become aware that the risk assessment is not being followed, please draw it to the attention of the school, or us. Mistakes will be made, and we would expect schools to be sympathetic to inadvertent and minor errors. We think it best that these issues are dealt with promptly and vigilance is maintained; to keep you safe.
UNISON has got your back.
You should check that the following points are being observed in your workplace;
Your employer will have consulted you and shared with you an updated risk assessment and related documents for September opening. You will have received training on all the current risk management arrangements for the school.
Vulnerable employees, or those living with vulnerable people, will have had a Vulnerable Employee Risk Assessment (VERA). This should address employees with underlying medical conditions, employees with characteristics known to put them at higher risk, caring responsibilities and travel plans. Additional measures must be in place to mitigate the increased risk these employees are at.
The school will have secured ample supplies of PPE, cleaning materials and facilities to support regular hand washing, good hygiene, enhanced cleaning and protection for staff working closely with students.
All staff should be allowed to wear a face covering at work if they so wish. We will support any member to exercise this wish. We strongly recommend that staff working across classes consider this. Regrettably, the government advice on this has been confused, and we have seen risk assessments stating there is no need for staff to wear masks.
All support staff should be undertaking their normal duties, within their job description. We know TAs have been teaching full classes previously (we don’t support this), and that roles like HLTA’s do have additional responsibilities. However, we are concerned that workload pressures on staff are likely to increase. We don’t know how long we will be living with the COVID-19 threat, blended learning may increase workload, there could be pressure on staffing if we have virus outbreaks and staff have already suffered considerable stress since March. It is crucial that we try to prevent further education disadvantage to children, so the working arrangements and wellbeing of staff must be sustainable.
UNISON’s advice goes beyond the governments, and we’ve noticed that school risk assessments have not picked up our advice on monitoring workload and wellbeing. Take care of yourself by working within your job description.
Contact us for our support on that and let us know if your workload is becoming a problem.