Education workers are fighting to win a shutdown of schools during the four-week lockdown in England.
Boris Johnson announced on Saturday that a new lockdown would begin on Thursday. It will see non-essential shops closed along with pubs and restaurants. But the Tory plan leaves schools, colleges and universities – major sources of virus transmission – open.
The NEU union has called for a four-week shutdown of schools and colleges to curb the spread of the virus. Joint NEU general secretary Kevin Courtney said the government is “ignoring the role of schools as a major contributor to the spread of the virus”.
Around 150 people joined an emergency online meeting called by the NEU Left group on Sunday.
Oxfordshire primary school teacher Lucy Coleman said, “The idea of a national four-week lockdown while schools carry on as normal is ludicrous. Transmission rates in schools are so high. If schools remain open in this chaotic situation, the case rate will continue to rise and we risk overwhelming our NHS.”
She added that calling for schools and colleges to close isn’t only about protecting children and education workers. “We have to think about the family members of students,” she said.
School support worker Karam Bales disputed the idea that shutting schools will harm the economy. He pointed out that closing schools will get the R number, which measures the rate of transmission, down much faster than if they stay open.
“If the R number doesn’t come down enough, they will roll on the lockdown,” he said. “There will be less impact on the economy from a short, sharp lockdown that involves schools.”
London primary school teacher and NEU national executive committee (NEC) member Jess Edwards said Tory failures have put lives at risk.
She said it is “absolutely outrageous” that schools aren’t included in the lockdown.
“In secondary schools the rate has gone up fifty-fold since September,” she said. “To say there will be a lockdown that did not include those children is absolutely intolerable. Even in primary schools, 1 percent of children are currently infected.”
Jess said the choice isn’t between whether schools stay open or close, but between “planned closures or utter chaos”.
“Already we’ve got schools that have been closed twice, nurseries that have been closed three times since September,” she said. “We are for schools staying as open as they can be, and for now that means they have to close.”
Workers discussed how to win the union’s demands.
Debs Gwynn, a secondary school teacher in Merseyside and NEU NEC member, said organising on the ground is key.
She said union leaders have “opened the door” by saying that schools should close. “But saying it doesn’t translate into change on the ground,” she said.
“It takes legwork by trade union members.”
She said union members must go into schools and gauge the mood. “Have individual conversations explaining why it is the right thing to do,” she said.
“In my school, if we get agreement we will pass a form of words and send it to the CEO of our Multi Academy Trust.
“Then I will contact other schools in the locality and say, ‘we’ve done this, can I have a Zoom meeting and explain to your members why’.
“It’s a domino effect. You can influence what happens in your workplace, which can influence what happens in the workplace down the road and so on. That’s how you build a collective response.”
The Tories claim that closing schools harms children. It’s true that there are huge problems with children being out of school – such as damage to mental health. But allowing the virus to continue to run rampant isn’t in the best interests of children, their families or education workers.
As Lucy told the NEU Left meeting, “Education at the moment is chaotic. Pupils and staff are having to isolate for two weeks at a moment’s notice. It’s a nightmare for parents.
“We say close schools now in the short term and work to reopen them in a way that’s organised and puts safety first.”
Karam agreed. “There are now over 8,000 schools with confirmed outbreaks,” he said. “We’re seeing large scale disruption by isolations of students.
“I’ve spoken to parents who are frustrated as their children have already lost four weeks of education as they’ve isolated for two two-week periods.
“We’ve got a choice of an organised closure for a few weeks before moving into blended learning, or a far greater level of disruption.”
The Tories aren’t keeping schools open out of concern for children’s wellbeing or education. They want schools open so that parents can continue to work – regardless of the health risks.
They refuse to put in the resources that could make schools safer, such as more buildings and staff to cut class sizes.
As Rob, a sixth form teacher from east London, told the meeting, “We need to go further. We need discussions about the facilities and resources we have.”
Disgracefully Labour leader Keir Starmer has gone along with the Tories’ rhetoric, saying he disagrees with the NEU demand for closures. But plenty of people disagree with him – both in and outside Labour.
Greater Manchester Labour mayor Andy Burnham said in a press conference on Sunday that schools should close as part of the lockdown.
By 1pm on Sunday, some 120,000 people had signed an NEU petition demanding that schools close.
And over 1,000 people joined the NEU in a 24-hour period between Saturday and Sunday. It’s a sign that people want to be part of something that is fighting to keep people safe.
The union leadership has at times been too quiet over virus safety in schools. It’s good that it is now demanding action. But the Tories are not going to give in without a fight.
Everyone should get behind the fight to keep children and education workers safe – and for action that can really curb the spread of the virus. And we should also fight for proper support for people during lockdown to mitigate against the negative impact of restrictions.