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FOLLOWING the government announcement in May on the wider opening of schools for targeted year groups, a few parents in Leicester got together to discuss their concerns.
This initial meeting resulted in Safety First: Carers, School Staff and Students Together Leicestershire being formed and activists set about turning their concerns over safety in schools into a plan of action.
The steering committee is parent-led and includes members of the NEU, local campaigners from the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, activists of no party affiliation and members of various other unions, including Unite Community.
The group has the support of the Leicester and District Trades Council. And we have a Facebook group (www.facebook.com/groups/schoolsafetyfirstleics) too, which we encourage parents from all around Leicestershire to join.
We originally expressed our concerns to the elected mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby. And requested that he advise school leaders to delay wider opening until the NEU Five Tests for health and safety had been met.
At this point, our group included parents and teachers who were covered by shielding guidelines, including people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, which is very reflective of the Leicester demographic.
As we know, being a member of the BAME community carries additional risks in terms of being disproportionately affected by Covid-19.
We were all concerned about protecting ourselves, our children, teachers and all school staff and everyone in the wider community.
We asked for clarity on the risk assessments, on who was to assist the school management teams and school governors, and we asked whether they would be published and how the partial return to school would be monitored for health and safety matters.
We also questioned how first aid would be administered and raised concerns about how the new social-distancing measures would affect the mental and emotional health of children who have already been traumatised by lockdown measures, including those with additional needs.
The mayor’s response was disappointing — largely a cut-and-paste exercise from the government’s advice and the advice of his daughter who is an assistant mayor with the education brief, which she had posted on the local authority site.
Most of our specific concerns regarding risk assessment and daily monitoring went unanswered.
And instead we were firmly told that school governors and leaders are best placed to know what they are doing.
Fair enough, but dismissing genuine concerns by worried parents did not help when we were seeking clear guidance and understanding.
Nor was it reassuring or even timely as he did not bother to respond until days after the school start date of June 1.
Despite the lack of support from a Labour council, it was clear from June 1 that parents’ concerns translated into keeping children at home.
In fact, we held a day of action using the NEU safety hashtags, the school campaign slogans and selfies of the children holding up posters which we produced online for people to print off for their windows.
For some schools that did open more widely, it was not too long before infections among pupils and staff occurred. Cases cropped up in several schools across Leicester city, resulting in their closure.
This was very worrying, but it proved that our fears were not unfounded and our request for a delay was not unreasonable but correct.
Many more concerned parents are in regular contact, and the mood of defiance born out of concern for our kids grows daily, even more since the spike of infection rates in Leicester, which resulted in an extended lockdown by government.
This was subsequently extended further, and as the attention of the rest of the country has been on our city, it is important for the local authority to be more supportive of our parents and teachers, and to work more constructively with our members who are NEU representatives in our city schools.
The more recent threat by government to impose fines on parents who are too worried to send their children back to school in September means our campaign has turned its attention to this as a matter of urgency.
There are many parents who are not prepared to pay the fines, with some even considering deregistering their children from school rolls.
We do not want to be in this position as parents — we only ask that all safety measures are met and a properly functioning test, track and trace system is operating before September.
We all want our children to go back to school and be with their friends, but not until the risks are at a minimum.
We’ve responded to this with a new petition to the local authority, asking the city mayor to tell school leaders to refuse the imposition of fines.
In a city where unacceptable levels of child poverty are an ongoing issue, it is important that a Labour-led council gets behind our parents and supports all of us.
We will not hesitate to defend and show solidarity to any parent who is fined or finds themselves in court — we need to be strong and resolute.
We will not be bullied by this Tory administration and, if we all refuse to pay, we can win this battle to keep our communities safe.
Our immediate task is to keep the pressure on for school leaders and our local authorities to refuse imposing the fines where parents have genuine concerns.
Our campaign group continues to grow, and we would welcome anyone who is interested in joining a broad alliance of parents, teachers, students and trade unionists.
As a parent myself, I am immensely proud of the work we have done so far and our solidarity during these difficult times is our strength.
If you live in Leicester or Leicestershire and would like to support us, you can find us on Facebook. The group is called Safety First: Carers, School Staff and Students Together Leics.
If you live within the Leicester city boundary, please consider signing our petition to the city mayor at mstar.link/NoFinesPetition or email our campaign secretary Lindsey at email@example.com.
Andrea Burford is a parent and steering committee member.
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