Schools must not reopen until a UK-wide “test, trace and isolate” scheme is under way and families believe it is safe for children to return to the classroom, a coalition of unions representing school leaders and staff has told the government.
The joint statement by the Trades Union Congress says there should be “no increase in pupil numbers until full rollout of a national test and trace scheme”. It calls for funds to provide staff with personal protective equipment (PPE) and the establishment of a Covid-19 taskforce, with government, unions and others, to agree on the safe reopening of schools.
“The wider reopening of our schools will depend greatly on ensuring that families and carers are fully confident that allowing their children to return to school is safe. We do not believe that sufficient levels of confidence exist at this time,” the joint message addressed to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said.
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The statement is backed by the main teaching unions as well as Unite, GMB and Unison, representing key school staff such as cleaners, administrators and caterers.
But with a national test and trace strategy yet to be deployed – including a contact tracing phone app still under development – the unions’ tests are unlikely to be satisfied by the 1 June date for reopening put forward by Downing Street sources last weekend.
A track and trace pilot scheme began on the Isle of Wight, population 140,000, this week.
The unions’ position comes as the government in Westminster meets to discuss the UK’s coronavirus lockdown ahead of an announcement by Boris Johnson set for Sunday evening.
“Parents and staff need full confidence that schools will be safe before any pupils return. The government must work closely with unions to agree a plan that meets the tests we have set out,” said Frances O’Grady, the TUC’s general secretary.
“The best way to do this is through a national taskforce for safe schools, with government, unions and education stakeholders. Schools must also get extra funds from government to pay for essential safety measures like PPE and additional cleaning.”
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The TUC’s tests include “clear scientific published evidence” that reopening schools will not increase the transmission of Covid-19; agreement between government, unions and employers over minimum safety standards for social distancing and hygiene; and a “secure supply” of PPE for school staff.
But the key demand is that opening up schools cannot begin until there is a “full rollout” of the government’s test, trace and isolate policy, with targets for testing being consistently met and the numbers of new cases of Covid-19 infection falling. The government has now missed its 100,000-a-day testing target on five consecutive days.
“A wider reopening before such a regime is in place would be completely unviable and would risk increased transmission levels, and ultimately deaths,” the statement concludes.
The unions also want individual school leaders and governors to be given local data on infection levels, allowing them to close schools in the event of a local upsurge in coronavirus cases.
Labour backed the unions’ demands for reassurances before pupils return. The shadow education secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, said: “Schools should not open until it is safe to do so and the government must commit to work with trade unions and others to agree a set of principles and tests to ensure that systems are in place in schools to ensure safety in advance of any planned reopening.
“Labour has called for a national safety standard to protect the public and workers. The government must take heed of the tests set out today by trade unions within the sector and commit to not opening schools unless they have been met.”
The possibility of UK schools jointly reopening at the start of next month suffered a blow on Thursday when Kirsty Williams, Wales’s education minister, ruled out any change in policy by 1 June. Earlier in the week, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, had suggested that schools might not return until August.
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There were earlier reports that officials in Northern Ireland were unlikely to reopen schools before September, because of reluctance among parents.
The NASUWT teaching union has already called for schools to remain closed until the end of the summer holidays, while the National Association of Head Teachers said it is “clear that parents are very nervous about sending their children back to school”.
UK schools have been closed since mid-March to all but the children of critical workers and those classed as vulnerable. Only a small number of those pupils have been attending, with the bulk of learning taking place at home and online. Reopening is considered necessary to allow parents to return to work and restart the economy.
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