Important update for members about COVID-19

Letter to members about coronavirus from the General Secretary (includes letter to Secretary of State).

We have received a large volume of calls expressing concern following recent government announcements, and want to notify all members about Voice’s position on the proposed reopening of schools.

In summary

  • Any decision to open schools and nurseries to more pupils must be based on robust, reliable scientific and public health evidence that clearly states it is safe for staff and pupils, and which inspires confidence and co-operation in the workforce.
  • In the absence of evidence, Voice will challenge the strategy and timescale for wider opening of schools and nurseries.
  • Schools and nurseries must not open if stringent health and safety measures are not met, and employers must include employees in health and safety assessments.
  • We would like to see testing of staff and their families which is regular and freely available, not only when a case is suspected, and tracing following diagnosis.

Latest developments

The announcements by the Prime Minister on 10 May of the relaxation of some restrictions, in England, enabling schools and nurseries to open for more children, and the subsequent guidance published by the DfE on the 11th did not inspire confidence. Instead, they created an even higher level of anxiety across the education and childcare workforce and for many Voice members.

We know that you want to return to work, and to again teach and care for children, pupils and students, but only when it is safe to do so. Voice does not wish to thwart this, but the safety and wellbeing of our members is our foremost concern.

Whether you live and work in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, be assured that  Voice is representing you and raising your concerns with government ministers and officials across all the nations while working with them to prepare for the eventual wider opening of schools, colleges and early years settings.

Confidence and trust

Gaining the trust and confidence of education and early years professionals and parents is fundamental to the success of the Government’s strategy of wider opening of schools in England, where its aspiration to reopen from 1 June is causing great concern.

The letter from the Department for Education’s Chief Scientific Adviser to Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee, ‘clarifying’ some of the evidence he gave earlier that day to the Committee, has thrown into question the evidence upon which decisions are being made.  Voice members deserve certainty, and we will be seeking clarity and reassurance from the Secretary of State (pdf letter to the Education Secretary).

Please take part in our survey so we can show clear evidence of members’ concerns to the Government.

Transparency about the scientific, medical, and public health evidence on which decisions and guidance are based is essential, and it is also vital that they are clearly and quickly communicated.  This is not currently happening, and the strategy is riddled with ambiguities and contradictions – not least on the issue of social distancing within and outside of schools and nurseries.

We believe that vigorous testing and tracing will foster confidence in the relaxation of restrictions and should be in place before restrictions are relaxed.  

Clarity and strong, reliable evidence which demonstrates safety for staff and pupils is necessary, and the wisdom of the government strategy and timescale will be challenged if not available.

I will be meeting with senior medical, scientific, and public health advisers at the end of the week and will post further updates on Voice’s website.

Government strategy

While Voice supports the Government’s strategy to follow scientific evidence and advice, the absence of evidence in the Prime Minister’s statement demonstrated a lack of respect for the education and early education and childcare workforce that does not promote confidence or co-operation.

Currently, there is no change to the COVID-19 restrictions for schools and there is no requirement for schools or nurseries to increase the numbers of children, pupils, or staff. 

The Government aspires for schools to reopen from 1 June, but this is subject to change depending on the rate of infection and other key tests. Should any of these tests not be met, the current restrictions will remain in place. 

Schools and nurseries will, however, have flexibility on the date for wider opening.  It will be for individual schools and nurseries to decide, following a robust risk assessment and all necessary health and safety precautions being met, when to open. 

If this is not feasible, headteachers, governing bodies, trusts, and nursery providers must take the decision not to open on health and safety grounds. 

The aspiration that all primary children will have a month of education before the end of this academic year is, we believe, totally unrealistic, not least because it makes a mockery of the term ‘phased reopening’. Furthermore, it increases the planning burden on schools and staff, increasing the already demanding and large workload.  

Further detail of what face-to-face contact for years 10 and 12 remains unknown.

On the Voice Website:

Workload

The response of schools, teachers, the wider workforce and nurseries to the pandemic to date has been phenomenal.  You quickly changed how learning is delivered, and acquired new skills and procedures to care for children and pupils. Workload is therefore an important consideration of the preparation for wider opening.

Staff should not be expected to prepare work for pupils to do online and for classroom delivery. 

Preparation of work for the second half of term should not be necessary until it has been confirmed by government, and your school or nursery, that it is safe to open.

Planning

It is in members’ best interest to participate in planning for a wider reopening, even though it is far from certain. 

However, robust risk assessments must be undertaken by employers with their employees to determine if it is feasible and safe to reopen and consider the necessary steps to minimise risk. 

This will include consideration of the logistics, including the availability of staff and number of pupils expected.

Members’ concerns for their health and safety and that of the children and pupils can only be addressed by participating in this process.

Health and Safety

Should you remain concerned and believe that your workplace is not safe to return to, you should contact Voice and we will advise and support you on the application of the health and safety legislation or other challenges or potential claims arising from relevant employment legislation.

Deborah Lawson
General Secretary

Contacts

Press office

Tel:
01332 373 337

Voice Scotland

Tel:
0131 220 8241