A leading teachers’ union is to inform its members of their legal right not to return to classrooms due to “unsafe conditions during the Covid-19 pandemic”.
The National Education Union, which represents the majority of teachers, said it would tell its member that they can refuse to work in dangerous conditions as it has requested that all elementary schools go online.
The news comes as Education Secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed that all London elementary schools will be closed next week as the capital struggles with high levels of coronavirus infection.
Most of the other primary schools in England are expected to remain open on Monday 4th January, while secondary schools will reopen in stages. Exam-year students return on January 11th and others return a week later.
Unions representing teachers and support staff have since called for delays in reopening schools across the country.
The union’s joint general secretary, Dr. Mary Bousted said today (Jan. 2nd): “While we are calling on the government to take the right steps, as a responsible union we cannot simply agree that the wrong steps the government should take should be taken.
“That is 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 and 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 will inform our members that they have the right to work in safe conditions that do not endanger their health.
“We understand 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 are not currently able to fully and safely reopen.
“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.”
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 detrimental to education. It is time to respond appropriately to the needs of professional educators rather than how attractive a headline is like.
“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 call to delay schools reopening was backed by Unison, as union education director Jon Richards said, “The government needs to end its small, phased approach and act decisively by putting all schools back in school by two weeks delays spiraling infection rates. “
The GMB union, which represents school support workers, said it would take action to defend the safety of its members unless the education minister delays the reopening of schools in England.
Stuart Fegan, GMB National Officer, said, “Gavin Williamson will be with the schools reopening at six and seven. His shambolic approach is a recipe for chaos and danger. It causes tremendous stress.”
“When infection rates rise, we need a consistent approach, not a zip code lottery. The Secretary of Education must now use common sense, make a complete U-turn, and delay reopening of all schools in England until adequate security arrangements are in place.
“Nobody wants to disrupt a child’s learning, but measures are needed to protect people and keep schools safe.
“This must include ensuring a priority vaccination of all support staff in schools – key workers who are all too often forgotten.”