Each year, September looms large on the horizon for school staff across the country. While this year is no exception, no school year has been anticipated with so much uncertainty and caution.
After home-schooling my 10 year old through the lockdown while working full time, I have come to understand the scale of the role school plays in his life and have never been more thankful for the hard work and dedication of the staff at his primary school.
We all want to see our children back in the classroom, but government ministers can’t afford to keep overlooking all staff in their reopening plans. Support staff represent over half the workforce in schools and are often in groups, because of age or ethnicity, where they’re at higher risk from Covid-19.
We need to raise support staff’s voices higher so they can no longer be disregarded and can be heard as loud and clearly as those of their teacher colleagues.
Cleaners will be some of the most important staff once schools go back. But they’re already feeling the pressure of the extra cleaning required. What’s more, they’re not getting the training or equipment they need. A recent UNISON survey of our members showed that more than a quarter of cleaners in schools had not received specialist training on deep cleans; a fifth said they didn’t have enough PPE.
This is made even worse where cleaning is provided by private contractors. Stuck on minimum wage and only qualifying for statutory sick pay (if they do enough hours), the potential for further spreading of Covid-19 is obvious.
Face coverings have become the latest battleground in the classroom war. Secondary school pupils in lockdown areas will now be encouraged to wear face coverings but rules for staff are being made on a school-by-school basis.
Staff face the biggest risk in schools, as the government has admitted, with particular challenges for those working closely with pupils or moving between classes and bubbles. If they want to protect themselves with face coverings they should be allowed to.
Everyone working in schools — regardless of the type of establishment or the contract they’re on — should be paid at least the legal living wage and get enough sick pay that they can afford to self-isolate.
Clear action is needed to minimise the risks to staff — and therefore pupils, their parents, grandparents and the wider community.
Workers need individual risk assessments, more cleaners must be employed, staff must have access to enough PPE and employees must be on decent contracts.
But we can’t be under any illusion that ministers, academy chiefs or even some school heads will readily make the changes needed. Staff will have to work together to demand them, with the support of their union.
It’s for that reason UNISON Eastern has launched its Safely Back to School campaign. Our organisers will meet with groups of staff to discuss problems in schools and try to find solutions. We’ll encourage more reps to come forward and speak for their colleagues.
Together, we can reduce the risk of schools becoming a breeding ground for Coronavirus, providing a safer place of work for staff and learning environment for our children.