NEU Member Update

NEU are extremely mindful of the concerns of NEU members returning to school this week. We have already issued advice and guidance to our network of school reps.

If you are in a school with no NEU rep – we would love to see you getting involved (time off and training is available) – if you are interested, get in touch.

Here is a ‘must do’ poster for staffroom noticeboards.

Covid-19 Update

Covid-19 figures have increased over the past two weeks and even if it proves less dangerous on an individual basis, the greater transmissibility is likely to put further pressure on school staff.

On Thursday 30 December, the Northern Ireland Executive changed the NI testing system. The new testing system is as follows:

  • Fully vaccinated people identified as close contacts are now advised to take daily lateral flow tests for 10 days following their exposure to the virus. They should only book a PCR if a lateral flow is positive.
  • Unvaccinated people will have to continue to self-isolate for 10 days.
  • However, those displaying symptoms should book a PCR test as soon as possible.
  • Unvaccinated people will have to continue to self-isolate for 10 days as before.
  • If you test positive on a Lateral Flow test do not attend school. Book a PCR test.
  • It is no longer necessary for children under five years of age to take a PCR test – even if they have symptoms like a cough or temperature – unless advised to do so by their doctor. If they develop symptoms, parents are encouraged to carry out a lateral flow test on them. If this is positive, they should, if possible, book a PCR test for them.

Meeting with the Department of Education

NEU met with DE and EA officials with union colleagues on Friday 31 December. At the meeting we raised concerns about the lack of guidance and support for schools – the outcome (disappointingly) was the communication to school leaders on New Year’s Eve.

In that meeting, we raised the following as priorities with DE to protect our members in education:

  • Additional exceptional closure days to be made available to schools; to identify available staff, review risk assessments, ensure all mitigations are in place and updated including CO2 monitors, hand sanitisers, lateral flow tests etc.
  • Immediate review of close contact in school to reflect the updated PHA advice and highly transmissible variant.
  • Improved response, including additional funding, to schools in crisis on the part of DE and EA/CCMS.
  • Data to be gathered of the impact of COVID on nursery/pre-school settings as a matter of urgency to identify possible additional mitigations required.
  • Additional PPE made available e.g., fluid repellent face masks for all staff. Face coverings for primary pupils should be introduced.
  • Strengthen DE Guidance with respect to non-business critical activities in schools.
  • Contingency plan for lack of availability of lateral flow tests.
  • Reinforce message that schools can only stay open where there is an appropriate level of staffing available to ensure the safety of the school community.

We will continue to challenge DE/EA and offer practical suggestions to them in the hope of further protections being made available to members and the young people in their care.

Meanwhile we remind and advise all members:

  • Schools are not safe to be open in event of 25%+ staff being absent. Where cover is not available, pupils should be sent home. To date, attempts to recruit retired teachers onto NISTR appears to be an abject failure. Principals should ensure staff being redeployed to cover for absent colleagues are qualified for the role.
  • Risk assessments outline mitigations up to and including school closure/exceptional closure in event of key staff absence e.g., cleaning staff. It is important that individual risk assessments* be revisited in the light of the latest Covid-19 variant.
  • All mitigations must be considered and implemented to fully support schools being open safely.
  • Establishing a Covid Safety Team in school would assist principals and leadership teams by further drawing on support from Health & Safety Reps and other nominated staff from across the school workforce.
  • If you believe you are a close contact, follow the PHA guidance.
  • If you are unable to access support from the employing authorities contact us and we will provide what support, we can by intervening with the relevant body on your behalf where appropriate.

Risk Assessments

Given the change in Covid levels it is important that all Covid Risk Assessments are reviewed. School reps and health and safety reps must make sure that they are consulted on risk assessments before teachers engage in any mass gatherings such as open days or parents’ meetings. Our position is that all such events should be held online.

*In respect of individual risk assessments:

Health and safety law requires employers to demonstrate that a safe work environment is in place by undertaking risk assessments, putting in place proportionate control measures and keeping them under review.

This includes assessing the individual circumstances for employees who are at known greater risk from contracting Covid-19. These circumstances include the individual’s own health conditions and any factors which place them at higher risk for other reasons.

The degree to which individuals are at risk is affected by their underlying health and by their age, ethnicity, sex, disability, and pregnancy. Risk assessments should take account of personal and household circumstances (for example a member of staff may live with someone who is CEV), local prevalence of Covid-19 and, where necessary, medical advice.

Key questions to be addressed as part of the risk assessment process for such staff include:

  • Can working arrangements be adapted so that they are based in locations where the risk is lower, for example because it is easier to maintain social distancing?
  • Will they be allocated the best ventilated classrooms or other work areas, and will CO2 monitors be available so that ventilation levels can be checked during the day?
  • Will the groups of students with which they work be kept as consistent as reasonably possible, including in relation to staff movement, to minimise the extent of their exposure to students?
  • Will FFP2/FFP3 face masks, which provide protection for the wearer as well as others, be provided to them?
  • How will any concerns about working closely with staff who may not have been vaccinated be addressed?
  • Will the school encourage all staff and students to undertake regular lateral flow testing to provide a minimum level of reassurance?
  • Will household close contacts of positive cases be asked to self-isolate by the school pending a negative PCR test?

Further information and advice is available on our website.

There are several useful updates in our advice section on our website.

Staffing Shortages

NEU are concerned that schools are likely to suffer staffing shortages over the coming weeks. Despite this, the Department of Education have yet to make any flexibilities for teachers in relation to workload. The DE position seems to be that teachers will ‘be flexible’ in relation to covering for colleagues, composite classes and providing work for absent students.

The contractual position is set out below.

Cover (including composite classes)

Teachers are not required to:

  • Provide cover or supervision for someone with Covid19 or who is self-isolating, either by covering a full class, part of a class or supervising a large group in an assembly hall. It is a contractual right not to provide cover for a known absence of more than two days from the first day.
  • Provide cover or supervision for any absence where it was known in advance that it would exceed two days. It is a contractual right not to provide cover for a known absence of more than two days from the first day.
  • Provide cover or supervise if it is not provided for in the time budget. Note: You cannot be asked to cover if there is no time budget.
  • Remember cover is included within the weekly teaching limit of 25 hours in a primary or special school and 23.5 hours in a post-primary school.

Cover includes temporary compositing of classes. Compositing classes mixes bubbles and should be avoided during the pandemic. In any case, a teacher is not required to take in pupils from a colleague when the absence is a known absence of more than two days. When compositing occurs on a temporary basis it should only be for a short time and DE guidance on class sizes must be adhered to.

Online learning

TNC 2015 Protocol for Home-School E-learning is an agreement between unions and employers in relation to online learning:

DE Guidance on Ventilation 

The risk of virus transmission is lower in a well-ventilated space - schools are encouraged to maximising the ventilation of all indoor spaces as much as is practicable.

Where activities take place indoors, schools should seek to have doors and windows open wherever possible.

The opening of doors and windows should be encouraged to increase natural ventilation.

Schools should identify poorly ventilated spaces as part of their risk assessment and take steps to improvement fresh air flow in these areas, giving consideration when holding events where visitors may be on site.

Tackling poor ventilation collectively with colleagues and school management offers the best chance of success. Most employers will welcome such a collaborative approach since improving ventilation should lead to less Covid-19 transmission and therefore less disruption to education.

Schools should undertake a ventilation risk assessment to identify any poorly ventilated areas.

Here are some key questions to ask your employer, which should be considered as part of the risk assessment process. Individual classroom or workspace occupants should be involved too.

  • Are there any classrooms and other areas where people gather and where there is neither mechanical ventilation, nor natural ventilation such as open windows, doors, or vents?
  • If there are mechanical systems that provide outdoor air, temperature control, or both then does the system only recirculate air with no outdoor air supply? If so, the area is likely to be poorly ventilated and any Covid-19 in the air will just be moved around rather than removed.
  • Are there any indoor areas with fewer than 6 air changes per hour?

If the answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’ or ‘we don’t know’, then improvements are needed.

Carbon dioxide monitors are not a solution to the problem of poor ventilation. They will indicate a problem but then something must be done.

Our advice to schools and colleges is to follow the unions’ guidance on ventilation to maintain safe CO2 levels and good ventilation practices.

We also believe that any areas identified as having unsafe levels of ventilation should be taken out of use pending improvements.

Of course, good ventilation doesn’t mean that other Covid-19 controls, such as physical distancing, face coverings, testing, contact tracing, vaccination and a focus on hygiene can be forgotten!

On risk assessments DE state that:

In accordance with relevant legislation and guidance, trades unions have been consulted on and involved in the development of risk assessment templates for use in schools.

Risk assessments of individual settings should be undertaken to ensure that health and safety legislation and guidance is fully adhered to. Including the legal requirement that employers must consult staff through their unions.

Crucially, DE also state - Risk assessments must be reviewed regularly and updated every time there is a significant change in circumstance, including where changes to the DE guidance apply

If members have any further concerns or need more detailed guidance, please contact us.

Northern Ireland
NEU Covid-19 Update poster

'Must do’  for members.