Fresh fears over primary schools after staff test positive for Covid-19

Sally Weale Education correspondent
Photograph: Jon Super/AP

Unions have raised fresh concerns about the wider reopening of primary schools in England after a school in Derby was forced to remain closed this week when seven members of staff tested positive for Covid-19.

Administrative and teaching staff at Arboretum primary school began to develop symptoms last week when the school was closed during half-term, so plans to open to more pupils had to be postponed until next Monday.

In a separate incident, one of England’s largest academy chains has been reported to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), accused of failing to consult staff properly on Covid-19 risk planning before wider reopening of primary schools to more pupils.

Government proposals for a phased reopening, starting with nursery, reception, year 1 and year 6, got off to a patchy start this week with one union suggesting there had been only a “very, very partial reopening”.

Arboretum staff sicknesses will add to fears about the sustainability of the government’s plans to open primary schools to all year groups before the summer holidays, including concerns about space constraints and staff availability.

A spokesman for the Derby Diocesan academy trust, which is responsible for Arboretum, said those who tested positive for coronavirus were mainly administrative staff who had been working alone, and were not in contact with children. “They have mild symptoms. Parents have been kept fully informed,” it said. Four other staff tested negative.

The Department for Education has not yet published any data on pupils returning or schools opening more widely, but it is likely to say the numbers are in line with expectations and this week is the first step in a gradual return of pupils.

The NASUWT teachers’ union said it had been inundated in recent days with calls from anxious members who were worried about inadequate risk assessments at their schools and the possible safety risks to staff and pupils.

The Unison and GMB unions have lodged a formal complaint with the HSE against the David Ross education trust, which is responsible for 34 schools in London, the east Midlands, Yorkshire and Humberside, accusing it of putting the safety of employees and pupils at “serious and imminent risk”.

The unions, which represent school support staff, said the trust failed to provide full details of its Covid-19 risk assessments and left insufficient time to train staff on how to manage the return of pupils. The unions said they were also concerned staff were not informed that an employee at one school had been infected with the coronavirus.

The complaint said: “We are extremely concerned that the trust has opened its schools to an increasing number of pupils and staff during an epidemic without fully engaging staff and unions on the risk in each school and the measures needed to be taken to mitigate these risks.”

A spokesperson for the trust said it had worked hard to share all information with the unions, adding: “We are confident that the risk assessments we carried out for each of our schools are robust and rigorous, and our primaries that reopened yesterday all did so without any issues, having followed all government guidance.”

Amid growing concern about the risk of local Covid-19 hotspots with wider school reopening, the Local Government Association has called for additional powers to help tackle outbreaks in schools and other settings.

Judith Blake, the chair of the LGA’s children and young people board, said: “As more children return to schools, it will be essential that schools and councils have the appropriate resources to deal with any additional support needed for children’s emotional wellbeing.

“It is also important to give councils powers to manage outbreaks in places like schools, care homes, businesses and communities if new Covid-19 clusters emerge.”

Most schools have remained open throughout the lockdown to children of care workers and vulnerable pupils. A DfE spokesperson said: “We will continue to support schools who haven’t yet been able to open more widely to do so as soon as possible.”