Education and teaching unions from across the UK and Ireland have joined up to write letters to education ministers in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland, urging them to be careful when deciding to reopen schools.
The general secretaries of ten education trade unions have written a joint letter to education ministers in all five countries urging them to be careful and demonstrate “significant caution in any consideration of reopening schools”.
As the UK awaits Boris Johnson’s announcement on Sunday regarding the ‘second phase’ of the coronavirus lockdown, speculation has been swirling regarding how and when schools will reopen – with many ministers and ‘government sources’ reporting that the government is considering a ‘phased’ reopening of schools.
However, before schools are reopened, teaching unions are requesting the implementation of sufficient “test, trace and isolate” measures to tackle the spread of the virus, as well as significant operational changes to ensure social distancing, strong hygiene routines, appropriate levels of PPE being made available and ongoing risk assessments.
Today the unions laid out their prerequisites to schools opening in a letter, which was signed by the general secretaries of the National Education Union, NASUWT, the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, the EIS, the UCU, the Teachers Union of Ireland, the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland, the Irish Federation of University Teachers, the Irish National Teachers’ Association and the Ulster Teachers’ Union.
The letter, which was sent by the British Irish Group of Teacher Unions (BIGTU) who represent almost a million teaching and education staff, warns that the early reopening of schools presents a “very real risk of creating a spike in the transmission of the virus”.
The letter lays out three main areas the unions want reassurances on before schools are reopened – sufficient “test, trace and isolate” measures, improved hygiene practices and operational changes, and that the needs of vulnerable children are taken into account.
The letter states:
Firstly, we would highlight the very real risk of creating a spike in the transmission of the virus by a premature opening of schools. We are convinced by the experience of other systems that a critical tool in preventing a surge of infection is an established capacity to “test trace and isolate” and we would argue that reopening schools before such a regime is in place, would be catastrophic to the rate of infection.
Secondly, it is clear to all that schools can only reopen and operate safely if there are significant operational changes in place to ensure effective social distancing, strong hygiene routines linked to thorough cleansing practices, appropriate PPE available where required, and ongoing risk assessments in place to monitor operations. This will mean that as schools cannot reopen as normal, a phased return will be required and priorities established around attendance, which is likely to be part-time for most pupils.
As part of the establishment of priorities, we would stress a third point – which is the need to consider equity. We recognise that children from poor and challenged backgrounds and vulnerable children will inevitably require significant additional support as we move slowly back to a more settled situation. We need to recognise, also, that potentially all children will have suffered a level of trauma as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic and we would urge that the initial focus when schools reopen, in any capacity, should be on the health, well-being, and emotional resilience of our students.
The letter has been sent to:
- Gavin Williamson MP Secretary of State for Education, UK Parliament
- John Swinney MSP Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, Scottish Parliament
- Kirsty Williams AM Minister for Education, National Assembly of Wales
- Joe McHugh TD Minister of Education and Skills, Dail Eireann
- Peter Weir MLA Minister for Education, Northern Ireland Assembly