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Back to school row: unions and parents to defy government

Protest on Islington Town Hall steps as June 1 return is challenged over coronavirus threat to pupils’ safety

22 May, 2020 — By Helen Chapman

Union members protested on the Town Hall steps yesterday before presenting a letter to the council’s education chief, Labour councillor Kaya Comer-Schwartz (left)

UNION organisers came together on the steps of the Town Hall yesterday (Thursday) to demand that schools should not be forced to reopen in less than a fortnight.

They urged Islington Council to take bold steps against government plans to get some pupils back in class on the other side of next week’s half-term.

A phased return from the coronavirus lockdown is due to begin on June 1, but some local authorities are rebelling against the time frame.

Members of Islington National Education Union (NEU) were joined by Unison and GMB to warn that school staff fear a rush to open up again would come with health risks and a new danger of Covid-19 spreading.

The council has so far said it will trust individual schools to make the best decisions. First back will be Year 1 and Year 6 in primary schools, while pupils who are due to take exams next year will be invited to return to secondary schools.

Parents, however, will not be fined if they keep their children at home, and uncertainty remains over what will happen on the first day back.

All of Islington’s schools have been drawing up a risk assessment of their sites to see how they could operate under social-distancing rules.

But the NEU say it wants “five tests” to be met before school staff return to classrooms.

Former NEU branch secretary Ken Muller

These include a lower number of Covid-19 infections across the UK, and readily available testing and protection for the most at-risk staff and their families.

In Islington the union has 1,200 members across both state and ­private schools and next steps have been discussed over Zoom video-call meetings.

Anne Alexander, a parent of children in Year 6 and Year 10 – pupils that are due to return – said: “It can’t just be devolved down to decisions made by individual schools.

“I think it is really important that as a ­collective borough we should be sending a message to the government saying we should not open until it is safe.”

Union members said they were pleased that the Town Hall supported their “five tests” but want it to go further by pulling back from reopening plans.

It comes as a teacher at St Joseph’s C of E primary in Archway tested positive for the virus on Wednesday. The school will not be among those reopening on June 1.

Ken Muller, former branch secretary of Islington NEU, said: “In terms of schools being safe, here’s an example. We don’t know how the teacher got it. Was she infected by a kid? Was she infected by another colleague? Was she infected outside and had taken it into the school and maybe infected children?

“It just goes to show what type of thing we are dealing with and why we are worried about schools reopening before it is safe.”

While Labour frontbenchers at Westminster have called for more scientific advice to be published, Conservative ­cabinet member Michael Gove, the former education secretary, said: “You can never eliminate risk, but it is the case that it is extremely unlikely that any school is likely to be the source of a Covid outbreak.”

During the lockdown, Islington’s schools have stayed open for vulnerable children and those with key worker parents.

Different schools are now working out how their new teaching day could look, often depending on the layout of their buildings.

This includes introducing one-way routes around the schools, “bubble” classes where small groups of children work, play and eat together away from others, and regular hand-washing. Other schools are surveying whether parents plan to send their children to school on June 1.

Julie Hunt, who is a parent at Highbury Grove School, warned that “kids could end up traumatised” by the new regime.

“To enforce social distancing in schools, they are going to have to be putting in quite a strict regime about learning,” she said.

“With the older kids it is not their natural instinct. I’ve got a teenage boy, they don’t do the hugging thing, but my daughter, they have that natural instinct.”

The unions’ call to arms was jointly signed by Islington NEU secretary Tony Buttifint, Jane Doolan from Islington Unison, and George Sharkey from the GMB.

It asks the council to “set up a working group including school trade unions, parents’ organisations [and] local authorities – together with ­medical and scientific experts – to determine the timing and conditions for schools to reopen safely”.

As she received the letter yesterday, Islington’s education chief, Cllr Kaya Comer-Schwartz, said: “Our ­primary concern is the safety of our school staff, our children and of their families.

“We are a densely populated borough, we know that we have families that live in overcrowded situations, so we are very aware of the risks of children coming into schools and coming back to where they live with elderly grandparents.”

She added: “That is something that concerns me and especially as a BAME [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic] woman and knowing that our families will be more affected by that.”

Council leader Richard Watts said in a statement: “I deeply worry that the educational inequalities which already exist will only widen while schools remain closed to the vast majority of pupils. I, alongside teaching staff and parents across Islington, want to see more children return to school, but importantly, only when it is safe to do so. That is why I am pleased to support the NEU’s calls to government.”

He added: “The legal advice is clear – the final decision on whether ­individual schools reopen their doors to more pupils sits with each ­governing body.

“But we don’t support rushing to hit an arbitrary deadline set by ministers, and have strongly advised schools against doing this. As a council, we will stand by them in the decision they have made based on their thorough risk assessment.”

Education secretary Gavin Williamson said: “The longer that schools are closed the more children miss out. Teachers know that there are children out there that have not spoken or played with another child of their own age for two months. They know there are children from difficult or very unhappy homes for whom school is the happiest moment in their week and it’s also the safest place for them to be.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Plans for a cautious, phased return are based on the best scientific and medical advice. The welfare of children and staff has been at the heart of all decision making.”

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