In the Covid 19 environment- Is it safe to open schools and colleges?
Unions have fired off a Covid-19 “liability” warning shot to school and college leaders – quoting the health and safety laws “you are exposing yourself to by following the current deeply flawed guidance”.
A joint letter, from the National Education Union, Unite, Unison and GMB was sent this month to headteachers and principals of college groups with schools to make clear that the Department for Education has placed the wider reopening from June “on the shoulder of the employer and on you”.
It reminds them that the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, as well as four other pieces of legislation, “places a duty on employers to ensure the health, safety and welfare” of their staff and students before stating the unions will be advising members of their “legal rights should any member contract Covid-19 upon returning to school”.
“We believe it is important you fully understand the potential liability you are exposing yourself to by following the current deeply flawed guidance,” the letter added.
Multiple education unions have warned against the government’s plans for schools and colleges to start their wider reopening from 1 June, citing safety as their biggest concern.
The joint letter claims that the scientific evidence is “yet to be released that establishes that the measures contained within the DfE guidance are capable of ensuring the risk to pupils, staff and the wider community is reduced to an acceptable level”.
Education unions’ resistance to the current plan for the wider reopening of schools and colleges has been questioned. Speaking in parliament, Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, accused them of “scaremongering”.
The unions used the letter to say that they “trust” schools and colleges will “understand that we are not acting without good reason, but from the position that we all share responsibility for ensuring there is no second spike of Covid-19 in the UK”.
“We recommend that you remain alert to these duties when you are assessing whether your school is safe to be opened more widely,” it states.
“We appreciate that a decision of this magnitude, with its serious implications, is not an easy one to make.”
The unions said their reps are “there to assist and support you in making that decision” and they believe that schools and colleges should seek support from their local authority, although any decision does ultimately rest with an individual school and college.
The department’s statement said that it remains the case that schools and colleges will only reopen to more students if the government’s “five tests” are met by 28 May.
The five tests are:
- Protect the NHS’s ability to cope. We must be confident that we are able to provide sufficient critical care and specialist treatment right across the UK
- See a sustained and consistent fall in the daily death rates from COVID-19 so we are confident that we have moved beyond the peak
- Reliable data from SAGE showing that the rate of infection is decreasing to manageable levels across the board
- Be confident that the range of operational challenges, including testing capacity and PPE, are in hand, with supply able to meet future demand
- Be confident that any adjustments to the current measures will not risk a second peak of infections that overwhelms the NHS
Education secretary Gavin Williamson said: “Our priority is the education and welfare of all children and young people across the country. That is why we want to start a phased wider opening of nurseries, school and colleges is informed by the best possible scientific and medical advice. We will continue to work with the sector to support them to prepare for wider opening and ensure all children and young people can continue to receive the best care, education and training possible.”
Speaking during the government’s daily coronavirus briefing on Sunday 24th May, Boris Johnson said: “We intend from 15 June for secondary schools to provide some contact for year 10 and year 12 students to help them to prepare for their exams next year with up to a quarter of these students in at any point.”
Shortly after the briefing, the Department for Education released a statement that confirmed their new “expected” plan is for sixth forms and colleges to provide face-to-face contact for year 12 and equivalent 16 to 19 further education students “from 15 June, with around a quarter of these students in at any point”.