As the pandemic worsens many workers have been forced into struggle to ensure that basic safety standards are met. Schools have been a key battleground in the past month in the fight for safe conditions.
Since August 2020 teachers across the UK have been forced to work in unsafe conditions. Students and teachers have been exposed to literally hundreds of different households every day with very few safety precautions in place.
Even under the current lockdown where schools are officially closed, figures have shown that over 50% of students are still attending school in some areas of England.
A SAGE (the body of scientists that advises the UK Government) report as far back as November stated that:
“While cases have increased rapidly in the general population, this has been particularly acute among school-aged children and young people. There has been a 50-fold increase since the start of September for 11-16 year olds, and infections are now higher for this age group than any other. Infections for primary school children continue to rise. Misleading information has been given on health risks to teachers. Action is urgently needed, to make schools safe for staff and students and to reduce infections in the community.”
We now know that the decision to close schools in January was taken far too late. Both the Tories and the Scottish Government refused to listen to the concerns of teachers unions as they wanted to keep children in schools at all costs, in order to keep parents in work and prevent further economic recession.
Most schools have seen no serious improvement in safety measures since August. What measures do exist largely revolve around hand washing, which we now know is simply not enough. Teachers and other school staff demand better.
Empty buildings should be requisitioned and used as emergency ‘nightingale’ schools to allow for smaller class sizes and meaningful social distancing. Councils need massive investment to train new staff and bring ex-teachers back into the profession to cover for absences and allow vulnerable staff to work from home.
Most importantly it should be the teachers themselves, through their unions and in consultation with the scientific advice of SAGE, who decide when it is safe for schools to re-open for all. This is the only way that we can ensure that staff and students are safe in schools, and can teach and learn without fearing the rapid spread of the new coronavirus from household to household.
Teachers are not just going to sit around and wait for the government to graciously grant us these demands. The main teaching union in England, the NEU has seen its membership rise by over 50,000 since August as teachers stand together to challenge the Tories’ decision to keep schools open at all costs.
The union has seen this meteoric growth by enthusing the rank-and-file with its stand against the Tory government, throwing off the timidity which had burdened the union in the past and calling for action from teachers.
On the 4th January the NEU called on teachers not to attend school and issued a model absence letter on section 44, a provision in employment law that states all workers have the legal right to refuse to work if they believe their workplace is unsafe.
In areas such as the North-East where the NEU is particularly strong almost all schools had to stay shut. This provoked a U-turn by the Tories who finally admitted that schools were unsafe and closed them to most pupils.
Following this, 400,000 teachers and education staff attended an online NEU meeting on the 6th January, making records as the largest online meeting in British history. We have seen that when unions challenge the government, we can easily achieve our demands and much more.
The actions of the NEU should be an example to our teachers union in Scotland, the EIS.
Despite a member survey in November showing that 85% of union members believed that schools needed to move to remote or blended learning in Tier 4 areas, and that 66% were ready to support industrial action to ensure this, no national action was taken by the union.
Instead, the union leaders opted to open lengthy formal disputes with specific councils, weakening the national pressure which the union had exerted before. No industrial action was taken, and as a result schools remained open until the 23rd December, at a time when the new coronavirus variant was spreading around schools at an alarming rate.
Teachers will not sit back as our colleagues and students contract Covid in schools due to a blatant disregard for workers health, and a focus on keeping the economy running at all costs. The EIS and organised workers as a whole in Scotland need to follow the strong example of teachers in England – that mass struggle and militant action is the only way to ensure our demands are met.