Back to school like never before

With many schools across the UK reopening classrooms this week, UNISON Eastern acting regional secretary talked to activists in Thurrock about going back to school for his latest blog post.

The government’s rush to reopen classrooms has been the main front in UNISON’s battle against coronavirus in recent weeks.

Many schools have encouraged extra students to return this week,​ rather than waiting until it was totally safe to do so. We now have to wait to see what the cost of not heeding the warnings of education unions and independent scientists will be.  ​

What is certain, is that the dash to reopen schools has caused immense anxiety among support staff.

Hundreds of teaching assistants, catering staff, administrative workers, caretakers and other school employees have joined UNISON Eastern in the last month.

Hundreds more,​ ​who completed a UNISON survey on PPE, told us they were reported being banned from wearing protective masks, denied gloves when handling packed lunches and being bitten and spat at by children with behavioural issues.

And a national survey of 12,781 support staff found that three in 10 (30%) are losing sleep, suffering high anxiety or both as a result of plans to open schools more widely in England. Just 4% said that schools had adequate personal protective equipment.

UNISON activists in Thurrock, a small local authority in Essex, are facing the same uphill struggle to ensure a return to work is safe. They’ve written to every school asking to see risk assessments about a return to work and are working hard to get through them all.

Some schools are working with us to put safety first, but staff are ​still understandably concerned.

Even before this wider reopening, some schools weren’t maintaining the standards with just the few children still going in.

Support staff told UNISON that children weren’t being encouraged to w​ash their hands regularly, hand towels ​weren’t being replaced enough and there wasn’t enough hand sanitiser.

One UNISON member reported being left by the teacher to take the children outside for a break. While outside, “distancing was non-existent, children were using bikes and swapping [them].”

Another said: “When I went in a few weeks ago, a box of LEGO was poured [out] on each table for the children to just help themselves, no-one ​was being discouraged ​from playing all together.”

UNISON Thurrock schools convenor Leala Vickers has concerns that not enough is being done to inform parents about what’s happening and says not enough thought is being given to how socially distanced education will affect children’s mental health.

“Yes the schools are allowing more students back, but at what cost? The school environment will not be the same, and I think this will cause more of a detrimental effect to the mental well-being of the children – especially the younger ones.”

“Staff are extremely worried about their health, and some feel that they have no choice but to go into school as directed.”

“A majority of the staff that I have spoken to have expressed concerns over the lack of clarification regarding them choosing to wear PPE in school to protect themselves, their families and the pupils they are working alongside.”

Across the region, and across the union, our organisers and activists have been working hard to address this to make sure staff ​feel safe and are supported during the return to work.

Any UNISON member with concerns should follow the steps outlined here.