To beat Covid, we have to fight for safe schools

While politicians squabble over degrees of lockdown, Covid is spreading in educational settings. Schools can be made safe, but education workers will have to fight to make it happen, writes Andy Cunningham.

An empty classroom. Keywords: school schools reopening Covid NEU safety safe

The current tussle between Boris Johnson and Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, over the North West being put into the misnamed ‘Very High Alert’ category, could not be less inspiring. On one side, a Tory who doesn’t care and just wants to be seen to be doing things so that he can maintain his shaky reputation. On the other, an opportunist New Labour stooge who is bothered about his rich friends’ bar profits. Burnham’s late calls for more economic support, including a North West furlough scheme, may entitle him to some critical, if unenthusiastic, support.

The problem is, neither position deals with the reality: the virus is being spread in educational settings – universities, colleges and schools. Any plan that doesn’t acknowledge this is useless and will simply add to the general feeling of resignation and powerlessness amongst working people.

The fact that educational settings have been key to the second wave is not universally accepted but the evidence is compelling. The current wave started building with the reopening of schools in early September. It was further driven by the forced return of students to universities later that month. Even the ONS now accepts that ‘Covid-19 infection rates are highest among older teenagers and young adults.’ This is all in spite of the fact that the government and Public Health England have tried their best to mask this outbreak by setting the minimum age for the NHS Covid-19 App at 16 years, changing the Serco-run ‘NHS Test and Trace’ programme rules so as to explicitly excludes anyone in education settings, and continually redefining what counts as an outbreak in schools (in August it was one case, September it was two, then three and now it is five cases).

So what should socialists argue in schools? It is clear that the lockdown was extremely difficult for many of our children. Not because children ‘fell behind’ (fell behind what?), but because a decade of austerity has left schools as key community hubs – a safe place where children get fed; get cared for; where their educational, emotional and mental health needs are met; somewhere that they can feel safe. Clearly, a full indefinite school closure would not be desirable again. But that is exactly what the Government is setting up for with their inaction.

Instead we need an alternative plan – one that protects staff, students and our communities.

We need to move schools to a rota system (what some called ‘blended learning’). This would be a system that sees different year group ‘bubbles’, or different courses, physically attending school for two weeks, then working at home for two weeks. That way children can still access education and the important social provision that schools provide, but we avoid a huge second wave.

To make this work we need:

  • A guarantee that every day, children will get a school meal (whether they’re in or out of school). This can be done in different ways, such as paying for meals at a café or elsewhere; via a national voucher scheme; or through direct deliveries to students’ homes.
  • The appropriation of additional space and sites (such as empty workplaces) so that the groups that are attending school at any given moment can be properly distanced.
  • Money for schools to provide real physical changes to their sites that will help protect the groups that are on premises at any given time.
  • A halving of class sizes to allow for social distancing, while also improving education itself.
  • To allow the above: an immediate recruitment campaign for teachers to work in extra classrooms. There are many ex-teachers who have been driven out of the profession by the government’s attacks on education. They could be brought back if they were shown the respect that they deserve.
  • Regular testing of education workers for Covid in line with other key workers.
  • Support for education workers to move their teaching online if they themselves are at elevated risk from Covid, and a furlough option for support staff who are at elevated risk.
  • The provision of the (so-far, largely mythical) laptops and mobile hotspots that have been promised, so that children aren’t isolated at home and can still connect with their teachers.
  • A replacement exams by moderated teacher assessment.
  • An end to pointless and dangerous Ofsted inspections.

This is not an ambitious programme – it is something that can be delivered in a fortnight if the political will is there. It is also something that we need – failure to act will cause an even more deadly second wave and will lead to lasting damage on the social development of children. If the government won’t deliver – and the signs are, it won’t – education workers must build on the successful National Education Union actions of earlier this year, and organise to enforce these measures as demands.

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