PUBLIC service union, Unison has warned Warrington Borough Council not to put children, parents and staff at risk by opening schools prematurely- with plans to re-open schools in the town set for June 8.
The Warrington Local Government branch of Unison, which represents teaching assistants and other school support staff including cleaners and caterers, has warned the local authority against pressing ahead with opening schools in early June after the council conceded that it is unsafe to re-open local schools on 1 June but still plans to re-open them just a week later.
The local union branch says it has has raised health and safety concerns on behalf of staff, but they have fallen on deaf ears.
The trade union also claims that the ambitious target to re-open schools in just over two weeks is unrealistic, given that half-term falls in the middle of the period of preparation for an increase in pupil numbers. Four school unions including UNISON are signed up to a Coronavirus crisis workplace checklist, which they believe provides a roadmap for re-opening schools safely.
UNISON Warrington LG branch secretary Jason Horan said: “Local school staff are dismayed that the council plans to re-open schools in early June without comprehensive safety measure being put in place.
“School staff safety is paramount. UNISON requested an increased cleaning function across all schools to avoid the spread of the virus- yet we were informed that instead, doors can be propped open to minimise touch points, reducing the necessity for proper cleaning.
“Until measures are put into place to keep staff, parents and children safe- we will not be able to support the re-opening of Warrington schools. We are nowhere near a situation where it would be responsible to increase pupil numbers in Warrington.”
Responding to new Department for Education (DfE) guidance on the reopening of primary schools and nurseries, UNISON head of education Jon Richards said:“Safety for staff and pupils has to be the number one priority. Yet the DfE guidance has a number of holes, and the government has neither met unions’ safety tests nor its own. That’s why the beginning of June date for reopening is unrealistic.
“The guidance encourages schools to use support staff to fill gaps if teachers aren’t there. While more senior teaching assistants can do this, there’s a danger that others could be exploited.
“Questions remain around the capacity for schools to be able to fully test, trace and isolate children and school staff.
“Many support staff come from backgrounds that put them at greater risk if they’re infected with Covid-19. Workers including teaching assistants, cleaners and school meals staff mustn’t be put in danger just because the government is in a hurry to get schools running again.”
Several other North West councils including Liverpool, Wirral and Bury have refused to open schools in early June until it is safe to do so.
Meanwhile local Liberal Democrat Councillors Ryan Bate and Sharon Harris are adding their voices to a national call for the government to release all of the evidence, which supports their decisions and guidance regarding the re-opening of schools.
“As a teacher, I recognise the tremendous impact which school closures have on children, especially the disadvantaged and vulnerable,” says Councillor Ryan Bate. “We want schools to reopen for more children but parents and school workers need to know that it is safe for children to be back in schools in greater numbers.”
“Not only do we need evidence to show that the decision to open schools to more children is safe, we also need clarity on exactly how schools are expected to manage social distancing and keep both children and adults safe,’ adds Councillor Sharon Harris. ‘As a retired primary school teacher, I know just how difficult it will be to explain to children the need for social distancing, yet alone for adults to police it’.
Councillor Bate continues, ‘In planning to have more children back, we must ensure that it is proven to be safe but the truth is, we know very little about this dreadful disease. Such an important decision with the prospect of wider school opening coming later must be backed by evidence. The government needs to either share this evidence or admit that they’re operating on a hunch. We recognise the economic need to get the country back to work but this must not compromise the health of children and teachers.”
A Warrington Borough Council spokesman said: “We are working closely with our schools to look at the guidance provided by central government. This includes looking at options for the phased re-opening of schools for some year groups from June.
“We are working towards an initial date of 8 June before any children return to school, to ensure risk assessments have been undertaken and robust plans are in place. We will continue to take advice from colleagues in public health, and all parents and carers will be receiving a letter outlining plans from the council and their child’s school in due course.
“The safety of our children and staff is paramount and all schools are completing extensive risk assessments. We are in constant contact with our schools through an education task force and our plans are predicated on both the council and our partners being satisfied that the appropriate safety measures are in place.”