Teaching unions have told their members to ignore government guidance and introduce stricter Covid rules at school.
The UK’s largest teacher union has issued a “safety checklist” for schools, saying its recommendations are designed to “slow the spread” of the virus.
But the National Education Union’s advice – which includes a return of bubbles and staggered break times – has been described by parents as a “pandemic straitjacket” for children.
The Department for Education (DfE) has told headteachers they may need to combine classes to redeploy teachers to cover lessons in order to keep schools open if staff sickness spirals out of control.
However, the union briefing document says that classes should not be combined since this would “increase virus transmission” and adds that teachers should not be “routinely expected” to cover classes, advising that if they are this should be “urgently raised” with their union.
The document is also backed by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers as well as Unite, GMB and Unison whose members include teaching assistants and other school staff.
‘Inflexible and militant attitude’
Family groups and MPs have warned that this “inflexible and militant attitude” is likely to keep more children out of the classroom.
“It’s incredible to see these unions suggest something that goes so far beyond what the Government has required for schools,” said Liz Cole of the parent campaign group UsForThem. “This is desperately unfair to children and plunges them back into a pandemic straitjacket.”
The current government guidance states that children should only be off school if they have tested positive or if they are showing Covid symptoms.
But the unions say that pupils should isolate if one of their family members has tested positive, and only return to school if they have received a negative PCR result.
“Where close contacts are unable to get hold of [lateral flow devices] due to supply issues, they should be supported to work from home for the isolation period,” it says.
Steve Brine, a Tory MP and former health minister, said: “This is the drip, drip of getting some people to the place they always wanted to be and it’s the children who lose out.
“As we are seeing with schools and we’ve seen throughout other areas, it’s not the law and the rules which do the damage, it’s the signals sent. Ministers give an inch and a mile is taken.”
The unions’ advice document, which was sent to their members this week, suggests that bubbles should be reintroduced, saying that schools should take measures to “minimise mixing, for example keeping groups as consistent as possible”.
It adds that teachers “should not routinely be expected to cover for absent colleagues, nor should they be expected to teach pupils who they have not been assigned to teach”.
It advises that break times and lunch, as well as the start and end of the day, should be staggered, and any large in-person gatherings – such as whole school assemblies – should be banned.
“Given the extent of the restrictions they are proposing it is hard to see how this wouldn’t have a major impact on the ability of schools to run extra-curricular activities such as sports, plays, choirs and orchestras,” Ms Cole said.
She added that in practice, staggered break times had previously led to children getting a shorter amount of time to play, or being confined to one small area of the playground.
Education Secretary urged to ‘get a grip’
Andrew Brigden, the Tory MP for North West Leicestershire, urged the Education Secretary to “get a grip” on the unions.
“The function of the teaching unions is to represent the interests of teachers – but who is speaking up for the children?” he said. “Nadhim Zahawi needs to get a grip and have a strong word with the unions and remind them that they are working in public service.”
Greg Smith, the Conservative MP for Buckingham, said the union’s advice was “utterly preposterous”.
He added: “We have seen unions throughout the pandemic push and push not to be in the classroom. We have seen the damage that has done to children, not just their education attainment and their learning but actually their mental health.
“I don’t doubt that there is an absolute commitment from the Government to keep schools open – but we are seeing this creep, creep, creep of more restrictions coming in. It just makes me very nervous that we are about to put children through an unnecessary hell.”