During the Covid-19 emergency that has engulfed the UK and the rest of the world, teachers have been in the front line as part of national efforts being made to defeat this virus.
The NASUWT teaching union has never been in any doubt about the huge debt that the nation owes to teachers and will continue to highlight this as they cope with the unprecedented challenges they face with expertise, professionalism and a strong sense of duty to their pupils.
Teachers have already made such an enormous contribution to public health, meeting the challenges of partial school closure by continuing to support vulnerable children and the children of key workers while also providing online learning resources and support for the majority of children who are at home.
Teachers are doing this while facing the same pressures in their personal lives as everyone else and are going above and beyond to ensure that children continue to have their entitlement to learning, despite the disruption we face.
As we enter the summer term, there is growing speculation about when schools should reopen to pupils. Some of this speculation relates to concerns about the impact of the partial closures, particularly on the education of children from less advantaged backgrounds; however, much more is driven by a desire to put business interests ahead of public health concerns.
Coronavirus: Public health concerns about reopening schools
At the NASUWT, we are saying that it must not be forgotten that the decision to close schools and colleges to the majority of children was made on public health grounds and that any decision to partially or fully reopen schools and colleges must be guided by the same overriding public health interest.
Government must be led by scientific evidence and advice, and must avoid the temptation to use selectively the scientific evidence in order to support a predetermined policy objective.
Teachers, support staff, pupils and their families must not be used as an experiment and it would be reckless for any government to ignore the independent scientific advice and thereby endanger lives.
The NASUWT has written to all UK education ministers setting out five key points that must be addressed before any relaxing of the current arrangements for school closure.
1. Do not rush to reopen schools. Government needs to recognise and accept that with a potentially depleted workforce, due to the impact of Covid-19, it will simply not be possible to reopen all schools to all children and that there will need to be fewer pupils in school on any given day.
2. Governments need to ensure that teachers are provided with the same protections as other workers, especially safeguarding those teachers who have underlying health conditions or who are in a vulnerable group. That will inevitably mean fewer teachers being available to work in schools and the government must plan accordingly, recognising that schools will face staff shortages.
3. Government should ensure that teachers and other staff in schools are protected from coronavirus as far as possible. Access to personal protective equipment (PPE), including universal access to soap and hot water, as well as provision of gloves, aprons and face masks where appropriate, must be given priority, too. The government’s suggestion that PPE is not necessary in educational settings needs to be withdrawn.
4. The government needs to accept, too, the importance of social distancing in schools, although this will be difficult if not impossible to achieve in practice where schools are reopened fully. Again, it is important that there are fewer children and fewer classes at any one time, given the physical space limitations across the majority of schools and colleges.
5. Finally, the government must insist on the effective conduct of Covid-19 risk assessments is every school and college prior to full or partial reopening. These risk assessments need to take place in consultation and agreement with the workforce and trade unions if the process for reopening schools and colleges is to be managed successfully. Regular cleaning, including deep cleaning of schools, will also be essential to secure and maintain confidence. And schools must have the necessary resources and staff to undertake cleaning which will be vital in helping to reduce the spread of the disease.
The NASUWT is committed to quality education for every child. We know that children’s education has been disrupted because of the Covid-19 emergency, but as we have seen from widespread public support for our members, teachers have not been found wanting. At this critical time, it is vital that teachers’ concerns are addressed fully before any decision to reopen schools and colleges.
Patrick Roach is general secretary of the NASUWT teachers' union