NEU calls for new measures to ensure safe return of schools and colleges in January.

The National Education Union has today written to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Education calling for new measures to be put in place to ensure the safest possible return of schools and colleges on the 4th of January. 

With increasing infection rates and a new more easily transmitted strain of the virus the NEU is calling for  

  • Online learning for the first two weeks of the Spring term except for key workers and vulnerable children to reduce cases amongst students and get testing set up. 
  • Directors of Public Health to set up a testing system to be in place that would enable all children to be tested prior to a return to person-to-person teaching.  
  • The 2-week period from the 4th of January to be used to begin vaccinating education staff alongside NHS and Care staff. 

The text of the NEU's letter to the Prime Minister and Secretary of State is copied below.

Dear Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Education, 

The new variant of the virus will mean that we are all concerned about the best way to see a return to education on the 4th of January. 

It was clear at the end of last term that cases were going up sharply amongst primary and secondary children; the ONS Coronavirus Infection Survey suggests that case rates in those two groups were the highest of any of the age demographics. 

Now, we all hope that cases amongst school children will fall across the Christmas period because schools are closed. But we have to be concerned about the new variant having perhaps 70% more transmissibility, and the suggestions that increased transmission amongst school age pupils might underlie the increase in cases before Christmas. 

We want to work with the Government to ensure that children who are positive do not infect other children who might then infect their families or the school staff; we do have a proper concern for school and college staff that have no PPE or effective social distancing in their classroom settings, as well as for the parents and carers of the children they teach. Reducing infections in school and college would also mean attendance would be higher than the low levels we were seeing last term. 

We support the desire of the Government to have an accurate and effective system of mass testing which could ensure that children who were asymptomatic but positive did not return to the classroom until they were no longer infectious, and which could find asymptomatic cases in further weeks as well. 

However, we are concerned that such a system will not be in place for January 4th. 

So the National Education Union would like to discuss three steps with you that we believe could radically reduce the overall disruption to education across the Spring Term. 

Firstly, we believe that you should allow and encourage heads in ensuring that first two weeks of learning should be online, apart from key worker and vulnerable children, to allow cases to fall further and to allow time to properly set up the system of mass testing. You will be aware that the Scottish Government has put that step in place. We hope that you would be able to support parents who had to stay at home as a result of this and that Government will do whatever it takes to ensure that all students have the devices and facilities to continue learning online. 

Secondly, we believe that you should ask the local Directors of Public Health to set the system of mass testing. We believe that the Government could support them via a national advertising campaign to find the staff and volunteers needed, as you did in finding the volunteers to help the NHS at an earlier stage. We are confident that schools and colleges and our members would be really pleased to work alongside the Directors of Public Health to ensure that the mass testing does then happen. We would hope that such a system could then test all children, at their school site, prior to a return to in-person teaching from 18th January.

Thirdly, we believe that you should use that two-week period to begin to vaccinate education staff, alongside NHS and care staff. Part of the disruption to education, and the extra stress on school leaders, is caused both by the relatively high levels of staff absence due to the virus and self-isolation and by the fear that vulnerable staff have about working without PPE or social distancing. 

We hope you will consider these suggestions favourably. We would be very pleased to discuss them further with you and to work with you on ways of implementing them. 

Yours sincerely,

Mary Bousted Kevin Courtney
Joint General Secretary Joint General Secretary