A left-wing teaching union faction is protesting today and threatening to boycott the reopening of schools if its demands over coronavirus safety are not met.
The Education Solidarity Network, part of the National Education Union, is holding a ‘day of action’ as it calls for measures including free PPE, smaller classes to allow social distancing and weekly Covid tests for teachers.
Campaigners are also demanding that parents who don’t feel comfortable letting their children return to the classroom should not be fined as demanded by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson earlier this summer.
If local infections top 50 per 100,000 people, classrooms should close to all but priority children, protesters argue, despite Boris Johnson wanting a full reopening in September.
Demonstrations are taking place today in Bristol, Coventry, Worcester, Newham, Medway, Huddersfield, Plymouth, Lewisham, Greenwich, Leicester, Carlisle and Merton.
It comes as an exclusive poll for MailOnline found just over two-thirds of parents intend to send their children back to school when classrooms in England reopen next month – but almost a third do not feel comfortable with the restart.
James Kerr, a senior figure in the Education Solidarity Network, told The Times: ‘We have already lost colleagues to the virus and will lose more if there is not action.
‘It’s not the Victorian era anymore. Every worker should be able to go to work in the knowledge that they will return alive and well.’
The wider union’s leadership has distanced itself from the faction’s demands, but said bosses are pressing the government for a more robust track-and-trace system and a ‘plan B’ in case of local lockdowns or a second spike.
Conservative Party co-chairman Amanda Milling hit out at the threat, however, as she told the Sun: ‘This hard-left action takes a wrecking ball to our children’s futures.’
To help make schools Covid-secure, plans have been drawn up for one-way systems, extra cleaning and staggered arrival and departure times for pupils.
Those in secondary school will be confined to year group ‘bubbles’, with smaller groups put together for primary children.
The Prime Minister has insisted schools will be the last to close even in areas which suffer surging cases of the virus, while Sir Keir Starmer said he also ‘expects’ all pupils to be back in the classrooms next month – despite opposition from pro-Labour unions.
The Labour leader wrote in the Mail on Sunday that it was a ‘moral duty’ for children to return to full-time schooling, arguing that Mr Johnson has a ‘moral responsibility’ to ensure that it happens.
It comes as a trade union official warns the ‘rushed reopening’ of schools could lead to the next care home crisis.
Justin McCamphill of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) was one of six trade union representatives who expressed concern to the Stormont education committee.
Schools across Northern Ireland are due to reopen on Monday for Primary 7, Year 12 and Year 14 pupils, and for vulnerable children across all year groups.
All other pupils will return to school on a full-time basis from August 31.
Mr McCamphill told the committee: ‘It would have been more cautious and more sensible to open on a phased basis to see what the impact would be before moving to a full reopening.
‘Unfortunately in many schools risk assessments have yet to be shared with staff, it is a legal requirement that risk assessments are shared with trade union health and safety reps, and in the absence of a trade union health and safety rep with staff in general.
‘So we have schools putting out measures that they have not consulted with their staff on.
‘This is going to lead, in my view, to what I think is going to be the next care home crisis.’
Gerry Murphy of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) emphasised that schools need to be adequately funded to reopen.
‘The £35m component of the additional money announced last week is to be used for sub cover, to support pupil wellbeing and mental health, to support schools’ transport and finally the statementing process, according to the minister.
‘It is nowhere near enough to fund this restart adequately.
‘Schools need to be reassured now that they can spend money to support their reopening and that money will either be returned to their budgets or DE will pick up the costs,’ he said
Graham Gault of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) described the guidance to schools as ‘substantial in volume but vague and contradictory in areas’.
‘It places substantial burden on principals in terms of interpretation and implementation,’ he said.
Jacquie White of the Ulster Teachers’ Union (UTU) said getting children back to school is the wish of all, but stressed it is ‘imperative that that’s done in as safe a way as possible’.
She also expressed concern about funding for schools to put safety measures in place, telling MLAs that, for example, one primary school with 289 pupils has costed the requirements for one school year at £100,000.
‘If we all want to be safe it is imperative that the funding and the resources are put in to make sure that anything that is thrown up by those risk assessments is mitigated against and dealt with,’ she said.
Alastair Donaghy of the National Education Union (NEU) said his members are ‘yet to be convinced that the complete and full-time return for all pupils without adequate social distancing is safe for pupils, school staff and the community circles they mix with and move in outside of school’.
‘We are also concerned that there is no plan B should infection rates continue to rise and where localised lockdowns may occur,’ he said.
‘We believe it would have been sensible for schools to reopen initially with the original 50% plan, and social distancing, to slowly start reopening.’
Meanwhile Robert Wilson of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) warned that plans should be made for exams next year.
‘Examinations in 2021 are the very desirable goal for most, but we feel there does need to be contingency planning in place in the light of the unpredictable nature of the virus,’ he said.
There were also calls for a helpline to be set up.
Mr Gault said: ‘We’re asking the minister, is the department planning to set up a helpline for parents to ensure that they have confidence in returning their children to school or is the principal expected to manage this as well?’
Committee chairman Chris Lyttle (Alliance) said it is ‘abundantly clear that there is considerable concern’ about the reopening of schools.
He told the representatives the committee will follow up on the issues raised.
‘For the avoidance of any doubt, I have full confidence and faith in the resilience of our teachers, our non-teaching staff, our parents, our young people, but they must be given the resources and support that they need from the education minister to meet the challenge of safely restarting our schools,’ he added.