Advice on safety in schools during lockdown.

Primary and secondary schools and colleges in England and Wales have now been instructed to move to remote learning for the majority of students, until the February half term in England and at least 18 January in Wales.

The NEU supports these decisions, which should have been taken much earlier when SAGE advised that schools and colleges should close in order to help tackle increases in infection rates.

The NEU advised its members on Sunday, 3 January that it would, in our view, be unsafe for you to attend the workplace in schools and colleges which were open to all students.  

In schools and colleges which are now open to only some students, this advice no longer applies. Adequate safety measures are still needed, however, in order for it to be safe for staff and students to be present in the workplace. These must include steps to reduce the need for both students and staff to be present. 

The NEU accepts that schools and colleges should provide face-to-face provision for vulnerable students and the children of key workers. We are advising members that they should agree to make themselves available to attend the workplace but solely to support these students, on a rota basis and subject to the requirements set out below on ensuring safety for students and staff alike. Advice is also set out below for members in those settings still expected to open to all students.

Attendance by students

New Government definitions of “vulnerable” students include those without space to learn at home or ability to access online learning. The NEU has campaigned for all learners to be provided with internet access and devices to access online learning. We do think that those who cannot learn from home, or are subject to safeguarding, should be in school. This should not, however, result in unsafe workplaces where staff are at risk because students cannot socially distance.  

The NEU wrote to Boris Johnson on 10 June last year proposing an education recovery plan under which school and college sites would be made bigger through use of temporary buildings and public buildings, allowing students and staff to socially distance. He did not even respond to us.

A national lockdown to suppress Covid-19 will not work if sites remain overcrowded. Primary and secondary age students alike are able to transmit the virus to one another and to education staff and thereafter to their households and their local communities. 

If your workplace remains overcrowded, denying students and staff the ability to socially distance, raise the issue with your employer  with support from the NEU locally. If matters are not resolved, the NEU will provide further support, if necessary via an indicative ballot for industrial action in the school.

Graphic of Coronavirus for general pages
Coronavirus and SEND

The coronavirus pandemic has contributed to specific issues in special schools and for SEND in mainstream schools.

Attendance by staff at the workplace

The NEU will oppose any blanket requirements for all staff to be on site. Government advice is clear – people should work from home if they can.

Some categories of staff should in all cases work at home (see below).  Where teachers can manage remote and online learning from their homes and wish to do so, this should be the accepted arrangement. Support staff who can work at home should be allowed to work at home.  Consideration should be given to arrangements to allow all staff to work at home at least part of the time if they wish.  Staff required to be present should attend on a rota basis.  All meetings and other activities not involving student contact or supervision should be held remotely.

Ensuring safety at the workplace

Restrictions on school and college opening have been implemented because infection rates are far higher than at the end of last term, in part due to the new variant virus which was not properly understood at that time. 

This means that the risk assessments in place in schools and colleges at the end of last term cannot be relied on by employers to demonstrate that workplaces are safe in these changed circumstances. 

All employers in all schools and colleges must review their risk assessments and ensure that appropriate measures are in place to ensure safety in these changed circumstances, including appropriate social distancing and limits on group sizes.  If necessary, schools and colleges may need to limit numbers present in order to ensure safety.

The NEU expects the following to be in place in all education workplaces which are admitting students:

  • a review of all risk assessments should have been completed, in consultation with staff, in the light of the much higher transmission of the new variant;
  • given the known greater transmissibility of the new variant, student numbers need to be reduced, along with equivalent reductions in staff on site so as to secure and maintain maximum achievable distancing between everyone in classrooms and other indoor areas, including staffrooms. 
  • masks should be worn indoors at all times, including in classrooms, by staff and students in secondary and by staff in primary and SEND settings, with any necessary exemptions; and
  • staff who are clinically extremely vulnerable and women who in the third trimester of pregnancy should work at home, supporting students who are at home.

The joint union advice on other vulnerable and higher risk staff remains in place and can be found here.

Arrangements should provide for the employment of supply staff where appropriate, rather than putting obstacles in the way of this.

The NEU will provide complete support to members in any school or college where the above minimum requirements are not in place.

Many members have submitted section 44 letters as advised by the NEU.  However, where members are concerned about safety situations in schools and colleges which are not now open to all students, the NEU advises members to seek NEU support locally, given the change in opening arrangements.

This joint union safety checklist sets out specific measures which need to be in place during the lockdown/partial opening period. It aims to help ensure that risk assessments are reviewed and covers measures which need to be addressed to reflect the known greater transmissibility of the new variant and meet the requirements of partial opening.  The full joint union checklist from November 2020 Coronavirus: checklist for continued opening remains relevant for guidance on other measures that should continue to be in place

Remote learning arrangements

Schools must take steps to provide remote learning to students who are not in school or college.  Only children of key workers and vulnerable students should be attending.

Arrangements for remote learning should minimise the numbers of staff on site and avoid requiring staff to be on site unnecessarily. 

The union’s existing advice on arrangements for remote learning can be found here.  This will be revised and republished to reflect the current situation later this week.

Special schools, alternative provision, nursery schools and early years

These settings are currently required to remain open to all students.  We believe that this is likely to result in issues for your safety. You should contact your NEU branch or NEU regional office (or NEU Cymru in Wales) for advice on dealing with these issues. You will be advised on the best action to take to secure your safety. Be assured we will support you in securing steps to ensure your safety through a variety of actions.

Why we have taken this position

The NEU has adopted its position after careful consideration of Government decisions, advice by the SAGE advisory group and the current position on infection rates.  We have issued a public statement on these matters which you can read here.

Petition the Government to make schools and colleges safe and protect communities

We have 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 in order to help keep families safe; and
  • establish measures to keep schools and colleges more “Covid-secure” such as the introduction of proper mass testing with adequate time and resource to ensure the effective role out of testing, the vaccination starting with the most vulnerable, and the establishment of rotas where possible to help with social distancing.

We continue to press Government to ensure that those school and college staff who are in phase 1 of the vaccination programmes are made a top priority for vaccination and that other, younger education staff are a priority in the subsequent phase of the programme.