A leading teachers’ union has advised primary school staff not to return to classrooms due to unsafe conditions during the pandemic.
Education Minister Gavin Williamson confirmed on Friday that all London elementary schools will be closed next week as the capital struggles with high levels of coronavirus infections.
Most of the other primary schools in England are expected to remain open on Monday while the secondary schools will reopen in stages. Exam-year students return on January 11 and others a week later.
Unions representing teachers and support staff have since called for delays in reopening schools across the country.
The National Education Union (NEW), which represents the majority of teachers, has urged all English elementary schools to go online, telling its members that it is not safe to return to classrooms on Monday.
In a statement, the union said: “This is a move that we are taking with great reluctance. But this government cannot protect children, their families, and our communities.
“And it is not a duty to look after the educational staff who worked tirelessly to look after the children during this pandemic.”
The union said that while children won’t get Covid-19, they can still pass it on to others.
The statement continued, “If the government doesn’t act to follow science, we must.”
Minutes of a meeting between the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage) and ministers on December 22nd revealed that members had warned that schools would have to be closed to disrupt transmission.
Sage said even a full lockdown similar to the springtime one probably wouldn’t bring the reproductive number – or R-value – below 1.
“R would be lower if schools were closed, with the closure of secondary schools likely to have a greater impact than the closure of elementary schools,” the protocol said.
The joint secretary general of the NEU, Dr. Mary Bousted said, “While we are calling on the government to take the right steps, as a responsible union we cannot simply agree that the wrong government steps should be taken.
“That’s why we do our job as a union by informing our members that they have a legal right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions that pose a threat to their health, the health of their school communities and more generally.
“We inform our members about their legal right to protection, which is based on science.”
Dr. Bousted said this means teachers can be available to work from home and work with vulnerable children and those of key workers, but not take full face-to-face classes as of Monday.
She continued, “We recognize that this late notification is a major inconvenience for parents and principals.
“The mistake, however, lies with the government itself and is the result of its inability to understand data, its indecision and its reckless approach to its central duty – protecting public health.”
The Secretary General of the NASUWT Union, Dr. Patrick Roach, called for an immediate nationwide switch to distance learning for security reasons.
Dr. Roach said: “There is serious concern that schools and colleges cannot currently reopen fully and safely.
“NASUWT continues to believe that schools, colleges and other institutions should only be open to all students if it is safe for them to do so.
“NASUWT will not hesitate to take appropriate measures to protect members whose safety is endangered by failure of employers or the government to ensure safe working conditions in schools and colleges.”
Jon Richards, Unison’s director of education, also called for schools to open late.
Mr. Richards said, “Ministers have had weeks to get this right rather than confusing parents, staff and entire communities.
“The union understands that members who work in schools have a right to a safe working environment. They shouldn’t have to work where there is serious and imminent danger. “
The NAHT union, which represents school principals, is also expected to provide guidance on returning to work.
In an update to Members on Saturday, Secretary General Paul Whiteman said: “The government’s current approach is too simplistic and harms education.
“The time has come to respond appropriately to the needs of professional educators, rather than how attractive a headline may be.
“The government alienates the profession, fails because of children and is ruthless towards the safety of the entire school community.”
Mr Whiteman also said the union has taken preparatory steps in legal proceedings against the Department of Education and is awaiting the government’s response.
He said, “We have asked the government to share the evidence to justify the distinction between elementary and secondary schools, the geographic differences they have made, and the evidence to justify the mandatory introduction of mass testing.”
The school reopening plans are different across the four UK countries, as in Scotland most students will study online in the week of January 11th, before fully returning to face-to-face classes on January 18th.
In Wales, schools are expected to learn face-to-face for the majority of their students by January 11th, with returns occurring in the days before January 18th.
In Northern Ireland, secondary school years 8-11 are taught by distance learning throughout January and primary school students return to class on January 11th.