The Government have put Camden UNISON members in schools at risk by asking schools to open from 1st June. On 28th May they explained that there were probably 4 times as many new cases than the official number of positive tests, the majority of infectious people passed on the disease prior to showing symptoms or were asymptomatic and they were just launching their test, track and trace system which experts believe is fundamental to the wider opening of schools.
Camden UNISON members met to discuss the opening and raised a number of issues. See our Q&A response. This should help you to organise workplace meetings to decide if it’s safe to open your school.
Are You Safe If You’re School Opens to Wider Groups of Children
Is it Safe to Open Schools on 1st June?
On Thursday 28th June the Government confirmed they would reopen schools when the science isn’t there to say it is safe. They admitted the numbers infected each day were 4 times higher than those tested and they only knew who 25% of the newly infected were; that the virus was more infectious before people showed symptoms than after they showed symptoms; and many infectious people showed no symptoms at all.
After our meeting on Thursday 21st UNISON HQ forwarded evidence from the Independent SAGE Committee who produced an interim report on whether it was safe to open schools to a wider group of children.
Their report said that two major factors needed to be in place for it to be safe for schools to open wider for staff, parents and the wider community:
- Low COVID-19 infections in the local community
- The ability to respond rapidly to any new infections through a ‘test, track and isolate’ strategy.
They conclude that it is not safe because neither are in place. In Camden especially the second point. They further conclude that every two weeks the risk of infection is halved. The Government also announced that ‘Test, Track and Trace’ will begin from 1st June.
I have written to Councillor Mason to ask her to advise schools not to open until 15th June. She has responded to say that she will not and let schools make their individual decisions.
You should now have access to a UNISON letter that allows you to write to the school to say that you do not believe it is safe for schools to open to more children. This letter protects your right o not work if you are in imminent danger.
Is it the Law that schools have to open on June 1st?
No, the Government made clear that if their five tests were met then schools should begin to open from 1st June. They have made clear to all education Trade Unions, including UNISON, that opening from that date is an aspiration and not legally enforceable. School’s do not have to open on that date, in that week or in that month.
Who will carry out the Risk Assessments in my school?
This work will probably be done by the Headteacher in conjunction with SLT and a member of the Governing Body to start off with. However you must be consulted on the Risk Assessment and you are entitled to receive UNISON advice and propose amendments to their plan. It is best if school support staff agree the amendments they want to put as a group.
Can the union request all Heads provide their risk assessments and return plans to their staff
As above, you must be consulted on the draft Risk Assessment and get a final copy. When you receive the final version you should ask UNISON to give you advice on whether it is safe for you to return to school.
If my partner has a health problem, can the school force me to come to work? My son has asthma and I want to keep him home but may have to take unpaid leave to stay home or work part-time?
UNISON has a national agreement that should be reflected in your school’s Risk Assessment. If you live with someone or care for someone who is ‘shielded’ or is vulnerable if they catch COVID-19 then you can only come to work if the school can operate stringent social distancing. If they can’t you should work from home. If that’s not possible you should remain at home.
Your doctor will tell you whether any illness of someone you live with makes them vulnerable or shielded.
The school should assess the risk to you and include travel to work. You must continue to receive full pay. If you have any problems with the school because of this, please contact UNISON.
Can I refuse to work if you don’t feel comfortable with going back to school? I haven’t any underlying health issues
If you feel your Health & Safety is at risk then you can. Please see below what are my health & safety rights?
Can someone refuse to come into work if they are worried about traveling into work?
Travelling to work is part of the risk assessment. You should discuss your arrangements with the school especially if you have to travel by public transport. The Government is recommending that you should not travel by public transport at the moment because it carries an additional risk. If you feel that risk is too high you should let the school know and ask if there are alternatives to travelling into school.
You should have an individual risk assessment for travel if you have to use public transport.
Can office staff continue to work remotely if it is decided schools will open on the 1st June?
The school could allow this to continue. The school is opening for wider groups of children not for it to perform admin functions. If you can work from home and the school can manage a reception service then there is no need for all the office staff to return to work on the school site. You should discuss this but let UNISON know if there are any problems.
I’m worried that if I stay self-isolating and there are job cuts in September it would be used against me
Of course it will be difficult to show the link. However if you are not at work for health & safety reasons then legally they cannot treat you in a detrimental way.
Are there any additional procedures for BME members, who are supposedly 4 times more likely to die if they contract COVID-19?
Yes there are. UNISON has asked schools to include a point in the risk assessment that individual risk assessments are carried out for Black staff and for those from an economically more deprived household. The evidence shows that staff in these categories are more likely to suffer serious illness or death.
The school should make sure they discuss any additional health risks and fully take into account any concerns you have. If you are still not satisfied with these steps you can make a decision on your health & safety.
Should it be a teacher per bubble? Is it ok for TA’s to teach in a bubble?
The Government say that if there aren’t enough teachers for each bubble then you can use support staff. The only support staff that can teacher under guidance from a teacher are HLTAs. If you are asked to teach a bubble without a teacher present you must ask to be paid the HLTA rate. If the school refuses then you are within you’re right to refuse to do this as it is not a reasonable request.
The bubbles are not the same as the critical workers and vulnerable children’s provision provided in schools up to now. Those provision are not full teaching. The bubbles will be.
UNISON has advised all schools that this should be clear in their planning and risk assessments.
Is it mandatory to have 2 staff per “bubble”?
It is not mandatory but it would not be wise to have less than two staff in a bubble. The staff in the bubbles cannot transfer to another group and should be self-contained. If a child needs to go to the toilet or if the member of staff needs a lunch break then another member of staff cannot take over.
Should it be one child per small desk?
The Government does not expect primary school children to stay 2m apart. However the Key Stage 2 classes should be set up so that the children are kept 2m apart. Your school’s Risk Assessment and desk layout in each classroom must space children 2m apart.
It is harder in Key Stage 1 and the Early Years. In these Years it is more important to keep the children in small consistent groups. Staff should be allocated to these groups only and not other tasks.
Will staff be expected to change nursery children’s nappies?
If you are required to provide personal care or work with children where physical intervention is needed e.g. first aid or medication that a child cannot take themselves then the school must provide you with PPE including gloves, fluid resistant face masks and aprons depending on the circumstances.
What are my health & safety rights?
You have the right not to suffer any detriment if you refuse to return to your place of work because you reasonably believe it would put you in serious or imminent danger and take that action to protect yourself or other people from that danger. This is a paraphrase of the legislation and once you have the final risk assessment we will provide you with advice on the danger you or others face and if the school’s place put you in danger.
We have asked UNISON nationally to provide you with legal advice as well.
As this is legal advice, it can only be tested in law and that means potentially an Employment Tribunal.
We are advising you to hold a meeting of members to discuss your school’s final Risk Assessment so that you can all hear the advice and then decide how you act on that advice.