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Coronavirus and school safety

The NEU position on keeping schools safe

On 22 February 2021 the Prime Minister announced that schools would reopen to all pupils from 8 March 2021. Other nations within the UK have announced different timelines.

What does the NEU think about wider school reopening?

The NEU is keen for all children to return to school, but this should only happen when the science says it is safe and in a manner which is safe. The union believes the Government’s reckless ‘big bang’ approach of bringing all pupils back to schools at the same time risks another surge in the virus and a further period of lockdown. We do not want schools to once again become, in the words of the Prime Minister, “vectors of transmission causing the virus to spread between households”. Wider opening must be safe and sustainable.

The union is lobbying the Government – and at the same time engaging with head teachers – to stagger the return of pupils in the run up to Easter, both to ensure cases fall further and to allow time for Covid-19 testing of secondary pupils to be run.

And – along with sister education unions – we are giving advice to members and to head teachers on how to make the return to full opening as safe as possible, by ensuring school risk assessments have been completed and updated, and that appropriate safety measures – such as distancing, ventilation and face coverings – have been introduced.

We believe vulnerable staff – including older staff awaiting vaccination and pregnant women – should be allowed to support education while working from home.

The NEU is also lobbying the Government to commit to and develop a long-term and fully-resourced education recovery plan to ensure schools are supported to provide the best care, education and opportunities to pupils following the pandemic. Read more on our Education Recovery Plan.

The remainder of our FAQs refer to the school closures from January to March 2021.

What does the NEU think about school closures?

No one wanted schools and colleges to be shut again, but your child’s safety, that of families, school staff and society as a whole, must be the priority.

Scientific evidence showed school closures would be necessary weeks before the Government made its announcement. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) advised ministers on December 22 that schools and colleges should close to help tackle surging infection rates. And an infection survey by the Office for National Statistics showed schools were driving infection among children and onto the wider community.

Recently released Government data also confirms much higher rates of Covid-19 infection amongst teachers and other school staff than for the general population, contradicting what the Department for Education (DfE) and Public Health England had previously said.

The NEU launched a public petition calling on the Government to use this period of remote learning to: establish the rate of transmission of the new variant of the virus amongst students and from students to their parents and establish measures to keep schools and colleges more “Covid-secure”.

Should my child be at school?

At the moment, only children of critical workers and vulnerable children and young people should attend school or college. This is set out in Government guidance.

Children with at least one parent or carer who is a critical worker can go to school or college if required, but parents and carers should keep their children at home if they can.

The guidance also says that children who do not have space to learn at home or the ability to access online learning can be considered as “vulnerable”: this is decided by educational providers or local authorities (including children’s social care services). If you have questions about this, we advise you to speak to your child’s school.

The NEU recognises that not all families have access to computer equipment and/or the internet. We are calling on the Government to uphold the promises it made to deliver free broadband and to supply pupils with laptops for their schoolwork. This is laid out in our 10-point recovery plan for education.

The number of pupils eligible to go to school and college is higher than in the previous lockdown. This could reduce the ability of children to social distance and schools should be able to take steps to reduce this risk by restricting the number of pupils in school. We are also calling on Government to do more to support schools to reduce bubble and group sizes to minimise transmission risks for those pupils and staff who are in school.

For pupils who are not in school, they will be receiving remote education. Find more about our guidance on this here.

My child has an education, health and care (EHC) plan or is in a special school – should they be in school?

Not every pupil will be able to come in. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach for special schools but it is important to reduce community transmission, so the number of pupils attending special schools must be reduced, as with mainstream schools.

DfE guidance has a new section which advises that where children with EHC plans cannot attend school, “education settings, local authorities and health partners (where applicable) should discuss with families to co-produce alternative arrangements for delivering provision. These decisions should be considered on a case-by-case basis which takes account of the needs of, and circumstances specific to, the child or young person.”

The NEU is advising head teachers in special schools to work with families to establish which students can be safe at home, to keep numbers in school as low as possible. The union is also advising special schools to use rotas and part-time, in-school provision during lockdown to keep numbers of students in school lower, while offering additional and timely face-to-face support to students and families who need it most.

You can find more information here and on the NEU website.

How are schools ensuring the safety of children who are attending?

The measures that schools or colleges are taking to make pupils safe should be shared with and explained to parent and carers. They should be detailed in a school’s risk assessment – a document that assesses risk in a workplace, building or area. This document should be regularly reviewed and changed when necessary and should be shared with staff and parents through the school website or via email so that the school community knows and understands what measures have been put in place.

In light of the increased rate of infection and the much higher transmission of the new variant, schools and colleges should have reviewed their risk assessments to ensure that appropriate measures are in place to ensure safety, including appropriate social distancing and limits on group sizes.

For children with an underlying health condition or Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) schools/colleges need to carry out an individual risk assessment, and you should be involved in this process.  

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