The government looks set to move to wider opening of schools and colleges in some way from 8 March, and then a wider reopening of shops and businesses across society.

The great danger is that, as with previous wider opening, they will take risks with safety – risks that will put lives in danger.

Unless the focus is on scientific data, caution and ensuring safety, the risk will be infections rising again, a new Covid wave, and further disruption and lockdowns.

Every parent and every educator wants schools and colleges open, and open fully, as soon as possible – but it must be safe and sustainable.

No-one wants an unsafe return which leads to more lives lost, on top of the horrific death toll already caused by this government’s criminal handling of the pandemic.

And no-one wants a return to the chaos and stop-start situation we faced in schools in the run up to Christmas.

The heads of NHS Trusts wrote to the government on 17 February warning that “if restrictions are eased too quickly the infection rate could increase rapidly again, putting lives unnecessarily at risk and raising the possibility of the need for another national lockdown”.

So what should happen to ensure a safe and sustainable return to schools?

The joint statement released today by education unions, governors and employers argues that the Prime Minister should proceed with wider opening on 8th March “only if the scientific evidence is absolutely clear that this is safe, and at that point go no further than a phased return of children and young people with sufficient time to assess the impact before moving to the next phase.”

This sets out very clearly both the conditions and the process for wider opening and should be widely welcomed.

Lower Covid Rates

As the statement says, the first and crucial necessity before any wider opening of schools and colleges is that it must be absolutely clear that it is safe. This means consistently lower Covid infection rates.

SAGE told the government it had to shut schools in December because the evidence was clear on “increased transmission occurring amongst school children when schools are open” and this was a factor in driving community transmissions.

The Office for National Statistics has reported this month that its comprehensive data shows that people aged between 2 and 17 are most likely to be the first case in a household – and therefore will spread it to others.

Of course, staff and student safety matters, but just as crucial is the real danger of schools driving community infections back up again.

In their consultation paper on wider opening, Independent SAGE have argued that this should only begin when infection rates are below the 100 cases per 100,000 of population.

It remains to be seen whether this will be the case in most areas by 8th March, but this should be a clear measure – data, not dates. If it is not met by 8th March, then we should not be proceeding with wider opening.

Phased Wider Opening

The second point raised by the joint statement is that any return must be phased with sufficient time to assess the impact of each phase, before moving on to the next. It uses the examples of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where initial opening has been cautious, and phasing has been structured over a period of weeks.

As Mary Bousted has argued, “a ‘big bang’ reopening on 8th March, with the current high rates of infection and hospitalisation, would jeopardise full and sustained school reopening”.

Clear Measures to Reduce the Spread

Thirdly, we need to be clear what measures should be taken in schools and colleges to minimize transmission throughout a phased wider opening.

The Independent SAGE report recommends a ‘traffic light’ system, as used in Norway, suggesting that:

  • When the rate is between 50 and 100 cases per 100k, schools should employ ‘red light’ safeguards. These include such measures as reduced class sizes either through prioritising the return of certain year groups (e.g. early years and examination years) and/or through a rota system within years whereby, at any point in time, half of pupils learn in-person and half online; banning mass activities and assemblies; wearing of masks in all classes for all school students, primary and secondary. It is important to stress that, for this approach to work, the provision of computers, wifi connections and study spaces for all students becomes all the more urgent.
  • When the rate is between 10 and 50 cases per 100k, schools should employ ‘amber light’ safeguards. These will allow all pupils to access full time in-person classes. However, mask wearing and banning of assemblies will be maintained.
  • When the rate is below 10 cases per 100k per week, schools should employ ‘green light’ safeguards. These will remove all safeguards bar mask wearing in crowded spaces, basic social distancing and hygiene measures.

This means proper consideration of rotas, blended learning and, of course additional staff and ‘nightingale schools’ or pop-up classrooms, as the NEU has argued for throughout the pandemic. We are in a far better place to implement blended learning than we were in June of last year and we must give schools and local authorities the flexibility to respond to their local situation.

And when children and young people are back, schools and colleges need the flexibility to focus on their mental health and wellbeing.

Prioritise Education

Finally, schools and colleges must be a national priority. That means enforcing and maintaining restrictions elsewhere in society to allow schools and colleges to reopen.

The TUC reports, based on its research, that 19% off workers are still being forced into workplaces even though they could work from home.

That is one in five workers being dragged in to work unnecessarily, fueling increased social mixing and spreading infection.

Yet not one company has been prosecuted or fined for this outrage that is prolonging the pandemic and putting lives at risk.

That scandal needs to stop and action needs to be taken quickly if we are to see schools and colleges open safely.

Build in the workplace

Fundamentally, we know that we cannot trust this government to do the right thing. It will be up to us to win a safe and sustainable return to education.

That will mean organising at local and workplace level in response to whatever the government announces on Monday.

Tomorrow’s meeting of the National Executive, and the special meeting on Wednesday will be an opportunity to discuss and firm up our national position but that national position will be delivered in the workplace by our reps, activists and members.

We should all be building workplace meetings for next week to discuss our next steps, and also building attendance for the Reps for Change conference on 6th March, where we can share strategies for winning a safe a sustainable return in every workplace.

Sign up to join our movement for change.