As a new national lockdown comes into force from Thursday (November 5), much of the economy will close down as it did in March.
But unlike the first national lockdown, schools will remain open – and while Unite understands the importance of children continuing to access education, the union has warned that this cannot come at the expense of the health and safety of those who keep the school system running.
School support staff and school nurses, many of whom are Unite members, are often the forgotten ‘key’ workers in schools. Like teachers, they play a vital role in protecting and helping educate our children.
But in order to support our children, their safety too must be paramount – Unite has warned that if any significant health concerns are identified and not immediately addressed, the union will be urging its members in schools to exercise their right to withdraw from the workplace until adequate safety measures are put in place.
Unite has called on schools to institute a number of health and safety measures at a time when Covid-19 cases as well as hospitalisations and deaths are increasing exponentially amid a second wave of the virus.
Some of these measures include funding for full and adequate PPE, provision of resources to clean and maintain schools so that they are Covid-secure, and regularly updated risk assessments, drawn up in consultation with staff and which all staff can access.
Unite is moreover calling for staff to have access to testing, and for social distancing to be observed at all times, even if this means smaller class sizes.
Strict safeguards must be in place so that all vulnerable or at-risk groups – from women who are pregnant to black and Asian Ethnic Minority (BAEM) staff to staff classified as extremely clinically vulnerable, among others – are fully protected.
Unite has also said that all contracted staff working to support schools are guaranteed their full normal pay if they must self-isolate or must be absent for Covid-related reasons.
The union has urged schools be completely transparent with any available data showing the risks to schools, parents and staff, and that school nurses remain in dedicated roles to support whole school communities.
Schools should moreover have a plan for remote learning and government funded resources such as laptops for children learning at home.
Commenting, Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said, “School staff are feeling incredibly vulnerable and believe their legitimate concerns are being ignored as the country faces the full impact of the second wave of Covid-19 and England prepares for a second national lockdown.
“It is vitally important that children are able to access education but if schools are to stay open then all workers including support staff and nurses must be fully protected at all times,” she added.
“Unite will not tolerate the health of our members being compromised and if there is an immediate threat to their wellbeing we will instruct them to withdraw from work.
“As an immediate first step schools must update full and rigorous risk assessments taking into account any health concerns,” Cartmail continued.
“Many support staff who have serious health concerns are feeling incredibly exposed as the government has removed the shielding protections that the vulnerable could previously utilise.
“The bottom line is that the safety of the whole school community, children, their families and staff must not be compromised.”