Pupils across England are returning to school last Monday, as the government ignores the warnings of teachers and scientific advisors. We cannot trust the Tories with children’s health and education. Instead, we need to put workers in control.

From the beginning of the pandemic, the Tories have been determined to keep schools open, come hell or highwater. And so – flying in the face of the science, the unions, and even what is logistically possible – the Tory government today sent nine million school children back to class.

SAGE [the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] has repeatedly advised the government to take a staggered approach to the reopening of schools. But such recommendations have been duly ignored.

Headteachers have also opposed this recklessly rapid reopening, pointing out that it is currently impossible to implement the mass testing of pupils at the levels required. These warnings have not been heeded either, however.

Tory hypocrisy

Boris Johnson and the Tories have consistently stated that their desire to reopen schools comes from their concern for young people’s education.

But if this were genuinely the case, then why have they not seriously considered the advice repeatedly given by the National Education Union (NEU)?

Decrease class sizes. Requisition buildings to allow classrooms with social distancing. Increase the number of staff to allow rotas and eliminate staff crossing bubbles. Distribute proper PPE. And ensure that all students have access to online learning if they need to self isolate.

The need for these measures has been clear from day one. Almost a year down the line, however, and they have still not been implemented. 

The fact is that the ruling class are crying crocodile tears about education. The Tories’ hypocrisy is clear: this is a government that has spent the last decade inflicting austerity upon schools and other public services.

Now, in the face of the coronavirus crisis, none of the steps required to make schools safe have been taken. Instead, schools are being rapidly opened up in order to get parents back to work and boost the bosses’ profits.

This time…

The autumn term saw infection rates for secondary school students increase by a factor of 75. By December, over half-a-million students were unable to attend school because they were self-isolating.

Schools quickly became a major vector for transmission, leading to greater infection rates in communities, and putting teachers and other staff at risk. Keeping schools COVID-secure, therefore, isn’t just for the benefit of teachers’ health, but is essential to protect the entire population.

The Tory government assures us that this time it will be different. Now we are armed with vaccines. This is a wonderful claim, but there is no data backing it up.

Trade unions, following the advice of SAGE, have instead called for a slow and staggered return. There is a major risk that the reopening of schools will lead to a massive increase in infections. SAGE has predicted the R rate will rise by 0.6. And if this leads to new mutations, the vaccine could become ineffective – leading society right back to square one. 

Whose side are you on?

In an attempt to appear ‘respectable’ and ‘responsible’ (to the establishment), Starmer has continued his classic tactic of saying as little as possible. From the little he has said, however, it is clear whose side he is on.

The Labour leader has given his full support to schools reopening today. And he has opposed any talk of industrial action by teachers over continued health and safety concerns.

Yet this attempt to distance himself from the unions has done little to bolster Starmer’s fortunes, with Labour languishing 13 percentage points behind the Tories. This is where the strategy of so-called ‘constructive’ opposition gets you.

We can’t rely on the bosses’ system or their political representatives to defend the lives of working people or the education of young people. These ladies and gentlemen will always prioritise profits at every turn.

Instead the trade unions and the Labour Party must call for the following: 

  • Scrap the ‘big bang’ approach. Implement a phased reopenings of schools, following scientific guidance.
  • Immediately open ‘Nightingale’ schools and classrooms to enable smaller class sizes and secure bubbles.
  • Conduct a union-led recruitment drive to hire new teachers and re-engage staff who have left education.
  • Immediately provide laptops and broadband for all 1.8 million pupils who currently have no access to online learning.
  • Provide the resources required for a reliable mass test-and-trace programme.
  • Carry out the above steps under the democratic control of teachers and education workers’ unions.
  • Fund these required measures through the expropriation of the profits of big business, who have continued to enrich themselves throughout the coronavirus crisis.

At every step of the pandemic, it is teachers and their unions who have been proven to have the interests of students, staff, and communities at heart. The Tory government, meanwhile, has been busy lining the pockets of its chums and cronies.

To fight the virus and make schools safe, therefore, we must organise to put teachers in control.

Thomas Soud, Birmingham NEU

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