30% of support staff losing sleep over school openings

Staff report being banned from wearing face masks and spat at by children with behavioural issues

Amy Gibbons

Person wearing face mask during Covid-19 crisis

Nearly a third of school support staff are losing sleep, suffering high anxiety or both as a result of plans to reopen schools to more pupils, new research shows.

A survey by the Unison union, which represents teaching assistants, catering staff, caretakers and others, also found that only a small minority of support staff (4 per cent) believe schools have adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Meanwhile, the union has published a "catalogue of concerns" reported to its PPE alert web page by support staff, including many who have continued to work in schools during the lockdown.

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Staff told Unison they had been banned from wearing protective masks; denied gloves when handing packed lunches to parents; and spat at by children with behavioural issues.

Support staff also reported having to buy their own hand sanitiser; working without hot water in schools attended by the children of key workers; and parents failing to social distance when they visit.

The Unison survey, which received 12,781 responses, found that three in 10 (30 per cent) of support staff are losing sleep, suffering high anxiety or both as a result of plans to open schools more widely in England.

Just 4 per cent said that schools had adequate PPE. 

The union is calling on ministers to make sure schools have enough PPE to protect staff, their families and the children they look after from Covid-19.

Unison head of education Jon Richards said: "Support staff are essential to schools running properly and they shouldn’t have to feel scared about doing their jobs.

"But it’s no wonder they feel anxious and are losing sleep – and that makes for worried parents too.

"Schools need much more time to complete their risk assessments and ensure that, wherever possible, support staff aren't being made to fill in for teachers.

"Parents need their minds putting at rest that teaching assistants, catering workers and other support staff have access to all the masks and gloves they need. Or they simply won't send their children back.

"A delay to the reopening plans will allow unions and government the space to work together to reassure staff and families in England that the return to school can happen safely."

Comments made by school support staff in emails to Unison’s PPE alert include:

  • "I'm making packed lunches in a primary school and also work as a cleaner (in a primary school). I have to hand over the lunches to the children's parents each day and was told I cannot have gloves as they are a risk."
  • "We've been told we can't wear masks. But if a child has a first-aid issue, then we have to be close to that pupil to administer first aid."
  • "I'm a teaching assistant working with key worker children. We have no PPE – no hand sanitiser, no gloves, nothing. We have soap but no hot water."
  • "The school cannot source sanitiser anywhere so we need to supply our own and claim the money back from the school."
  • "Parents aren't maintaining distance at the door, and children aren't being sent in clean clothes as requested. I was coughed on twice today and a child sneezed on me."
  • "I've worked one-to-one with a pupil who on the first day spat at me. He's aggressive and they've placed us in a small room together. My daughter has asthma  I'm so worried we considered sending her to grandparents until this is over. We've been told not to wear masks because they could scare the children."

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "We want children back in schools as soon as possible because being with their teachers and friends is so important for their education and their wellbeing.

"The prime minister has confirmed that primary schools and nurseries should continue to plan for a cautious, phased return of some year groups from 1 June at the earliest, while secondary schools and colleges should plan to provide face to face contact for some pupils from 15 June.

"The welfare of children and staff has been at the heart of all decision making and we recognise that some schools may not be able to open to more pupils immediately.

"We will continue to work with the sector to identify and understand any local issues, and will support any schools experiencing difficulties to ensure they can open as soon as possible."

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Amy Gibbons

Amy Gibbons

Amy Gibbons is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @tweetsbyames

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