A leading teaching union has advised primary school staff not to return to classrooms due to unsafe conditions amid the pandemic.
On Friday, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed that all London primary schools will remain shut next week as the capital battles with high levels of coronavirus infections.
Most other primary schools in England are expected to still open on Monday while secondary schools will reopen on a staggered basis, with exam year pupils returning on January 11 and others returning a week later.
Unions representing teachers and support staff have since called for delays to the reopening of schools across the country.
Today, the National Education Union has taken the difficult decision to advise its members in primary schools that it is unsafe to return to work on Monday. #MakeSchoolsSafe to #ProtectCommunities. Click here for full statement: https://t.co/Ib9AsKEAa4 pic.twitter.com/ExjBruRlKK
— National Education Union (@NEUnion) January 2, 2021
The National Education Union (NEU), which represents the majority of teachers, has called for all English primary schools to move online and advised its members it is not safe to return to classrooms on Monday.
In a statement, the union said: “This is a step we take with huge reluctance. But this Government is failing to protect children, their families and our communities.
“And it is failing in its duty of care to education staff who have worked tirelessly to look after children during this pandemic.”
The union said that while children may not become ill with Covid-19, they can still spread it to others.
The statement continued: “If Government does not act to follow the science, we must.”
Minutes from a meeting between the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and ministers on December 22 revealed members had warned that schools needed to be closed to bring down transmission.
Sage said even a full lockdown similar to the one in spring would be unlikely to get the reproductive number – or R value – below 1.
“R would be lower with schools closed, with closure of secondary schools likely to have a greater effect than closure of primary schools,” the minutes read.
The NEU’s joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: “Whilst we are calling on the Government to take the right steps, as a responsible union we cannot simply agree that the Government’s wrong steps should be implemented.
“That is why we are doing our job as a union by informing our members that they have a legal right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions which are a danger to their health and to the health of their school communities and more generally.
“We are informing our members of their legal right to protection to be guided by the science.”
Dr Bousted said this means teachers can be available to work from home and work with vulnerable children and those of key workers, but not to take full, in-person classes from Monday.
She continued: “We realise that this late notice is a huge inconvenience for parents and for head teachers.
“The fault, however, is of the Government’s own making and is a result of their inability to understand data, their indecisiveness, and their reckless approach to their central duty – to safeguard public health.”
The general secretary of the NASUWT union, Dr Patrick Roach, called for an immediate nationwide move to remote education due to safety concerns.
Dr Roach said: “There is genuine concern that schools and colleges are not able to reopen fully and safely at this time.
“The NASUWT remains of the view that schools, colleges and other settings should only remain open to all pupils where it is safe for them to do so.
“The NASUWT will not hesitate to take appropriate action in order to protect members whose safety is put at risk as a result of the failure of employers or the Government to ensure safe working conditions in schools and colleges.”
Unison head of education Jon Richards also called for the delayed opening of schools.
Mr Richards said: “Ministers have had weeks to get this right instead of leaving parents, staff and whole communities confused.
“The union is clear that members who work in schools have a right to a safe working environment. They shouldn’t have to work where they face serious and imminent danger.”
Guidance is also expected from the union NAHT, which represents school leaders, regarding the return to work.
In an update to members on Saturday, general secretary Paul Whiteman said: “The Government’s current approach is too simplistic and is damaging education.
“It is time to properly respond to what professional educators need rather than how attractive a headline may read.
“The Government is alienating the profession, failing children and being reckless with the safety of the whole school community.”
Mr Whiteman also said the union had started preliminary steps in legal proceedings against the Department for Education and is awaiting the Government’s response.
He said: “We have asked the Government to share the evidence justifying distinctions drawn between primary and secondary schools, the geographical distinctions they have made and the evidence justifying the compulsory introduction of mass testing.”
On Saturday evening, a Department for Education spokesperson said schools “will continue to implement appropriate safety measures to help mitigate the risk of transmission”.
The spokesperson added: “As we’ve said, we will move to remote education as a last resort, with involvement of public health officials, in areas where infection and pressures on the NHS are highest.”
Plans for school reopening differ across the four nations of the UK, as in Scotland, most pupils will have online learning for the week of January 11 before a full return to face-to-face teaching from January 18.
In Wales, schools are expected to provide face-to-face learning for the majority of their pupils by January 11, with a full return in the days before January 18.
In Northern Ireland, secondary school Years eight to 11 will continue to be taught via remote learning throughout January and primary pupils will return to the classroom on January 11.