Today, the National Education Union met with schools minister Nick Gibb. We presented evidence of rising COVID-19 infection rates in primary and secondary schools and argued, on the basis of this evidence, that it was not safe for (CEV) school staff to return to workplaces from 3 December.
Current DFE guidance states: "As the national restrictions end, the guidance to the clinically extremely vulnerable not to go to work or school will also end." (1)
The NEU does not agree that it is safe for CEV schools staff to return to working in school next week.
As of today we are advising CEV members of their rights to continue to work from home, and have written to head teachers asking them to support their CEV staff in this regard. (2)
The NEU will be supporting our members who fall within the CEV category and wish to remain working from home. Every contract of employment contains an implied right that an employee can refuse to attend their workplace if it is unsafe. Schools and colleges currently fall clearly into this category. The Employment Rights Act 1996 contains protections for employees who exercise their right to stay away from an unsafe workplace. (3)
Teachers and support staff with CEV make up 2% of the estimate wider CEV working population. 3% of all teachers/support staff are thought to be CEV. (4)
The rate of infection amongst secondary-age pupils has risen by 54 times (5) since the start of September and they have a significantly higher rate of infection than any other age group. According to the most recent Office for National Statistics data, primary and secondary age children are the only age groups with an increasing rate of infection.
Against an alarming backdrop of rising infection rates in schools and colleges Government has taken the deeply irresponsible step of driving CEV teachers, support and school staff back into the classroom.
NEU joint general secretaries Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney have today written to Nick Gibb. (6)
As well as expressing concerns about CEV staff, they challenge the minister to publish data on the number of cases, hospitalisations and deaths due to COVID-19 of school workers since the start of September.
In the letter, the joint general secretaries also ask Nick Gibb to share with the profession any projections he has been given for virus levels around schools between now and Christmas. They also ask him to justify his opposition to rotas. The NEU supports our sister union ASCL’s call that heads should be allowed to move to blended learning. The Government’s approach to school safety is inadequate and provides insufficient protection for CEV staff who should be allowed to continue to work from home supporting remote education for the increasing number of pupils who are isolating.
Nick Gibb must think again and allow CEV staff to continue working from home until the end of term. Other disabled and or vulnerable staff should have their risk assessments revaluated and as a minimum supported in the use of medical grade masks as recommended by the WHO.
Commenting, Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said:
“We know that case counts are rising in schools, especially among secondary-age pupils. We know that schools cannot fully socially distance. In such an environment, which is sadly commonplace to the vast majority of schools, clinically extremely vulnerable staff are at risk.
“We have appealed to Government to do the right thing and protect CEV staff who want to do their jobs but cannot safely work on site. We believe that most heads agree with us, and we have written to them to highlight the risks to their staff and the inadequacy of the new DfE guidance.
“The NEU cannot in good conscience recommend that our CEV members go into work when asked to do so, and we will be advising them not to do so. If a school refuses to allow CEV staff to continue to work from home, then that member should get in touch with their NEU rep - and we, together as a union, will support them.”
Letter to Nick Gibb, 27 November 2020.