England & Wales Covid-19, Education and children's services

Keeping our schools safe from Covid-19

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Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Over the past two years, the Covid-19 pandemic has had an enormous effect on the education of children and young people. Their exams were cancelled; many have not had home environments conducive to online learning; and, they have missed the social interactions and development that being in school provides.

Keeping schools open and safe

All of this has underlined the importance of ensuring that we can keep our schools open and safe for all children, teachers and support staff so that face-to-face learning can continue. Despite the Government’s recent announcement of easing of restrictions, schools and colleges are still feeling the impact of Covid caused by the Omicron variant. The latest ONS update shows 1 in 10 primary age pupils have Covid. When a child misses almost two weeks of school after catching Covid it can be incredibly difficult for them to catch up on all the content they have missed.

The same figures showed that over 100,000 school leaders, teachers and support staff were absent at the beginning of this term. This places an almost insurmountable strain on our school system. A strain that is supposed to be met by the less than 600 retired teachers the Government has recruited to support face-to-face learning. Analysis from the NEU shows that pupils from more deprived backgrounds have missed more school and had more staff absences during the pandemic. Disadvantaged students are suffering the most because of the Government’s inaction.

There is a danger of lifting restrictions too quickly before the effects of returning to school are clear. This may result in more education disruption which is extremely worrying particularly for pupils taking national exams this year, whose education has been so badly disrupted already.

NEU Councillors Network

NEU Councillors Network has joined together with NEU Governors Network to send a joint letter to Secretary of State for Education Nadhim Zahawi MP calling for measures to be put in place as a matter of urgency to equip parents, children, leaders, teachers and support staff with everything they need to protect face-to-face education.

Ventilation

First on this list is meaningful action to improve ventilation in all education settings. The 7,000 devices that have so far been made available are just a drop in the ocean – there are over 300,000 classrooms in England alone. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) first highlighted the importance of ventilation in schools in May 2020; it is disappointing that action has not been taken until now. This solution so far is inadequate for what should be a basic human right, the provision of clean air in every classroom in every educational setting. We all know that if action is not taken it will be left to local councils to pick up the slack and help to make their schools safe for all staff.

Support must also be provided for schools and colleges which wish to purchase their own devices. The current marketplace operated by the DfE is not fit for its purpose and only offers two very expensive models. It is simply not acceptable that a couple of companies can profit from this crisis at the expense of hard-pressed education budgets.

Ofsted inspection

Given the significant disruption that the Omicron variant is already causing in all schools, Ofsted should be instructed to suspend all inspections other than for safeguarding concerns. The focus should be on the essential aim of providing education continuity for as many pupils as possible, not on jumping through Ofsted hoops.

To act now and make our education settings as Covid-secure as possible is something which must be done as a matter of urgency. I hope that all local councillors will join me in putting their name to this letter and calling for the government to take action to keep our schools open and safe for all by preventing the transmission of Covid-19.

Further information about the NEU Councillors Network can be found here.

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