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A teacher’s perspective: as union members we have a role to play in combatting coronavirus

We need to meet and act in our workplaces — we can’t wait for Westminster to put protections in place, says ROBERT POOLE

THE longer I teach the more cynical I become. Or at least that’s how it feels sometimes. 

So when I saw the latest advice from the government I couldn’t help but think that it perhaps didn’t have our best interests at heart. 

Last week it was announced that the Covid-19 (coronavirus) outbreak had been classified as a pandemic and Prime Minister Boris Johnson was to meet top scientists to discuss what would happen next. 

In the education community it was widely expected that schools would close, following the lead of many other countries and in fact following the advice released by the government itself previously. 

At the beginning of March the government published its “action plan” in which it stated that upon reaching the delay stage (the stage we have now entered) action “would be considered [which] could include population distancing strategies (such as school closures, encouraging greater home working, reducing the number of large-scale gatherings).” 

This advice is based on previous epidemics where school closures have had a significant impact on lessening the effects of the outbreaks. 

Again, the government’s action plan quotes the fact that “in the 2009 ‘swine flu’ pandemic school holidays significantly slowed transmission of the virus.” 

Many were surprised when Johnson announced that the delay stage meant that nothing much would change. 

Schools would remain open and large-scale gatherings could continue. His action plan was in fact an inaction plan.

Next, the government U-turned on mass gatherings, banning these, but still no school closures. 

A typical secondary school might have 1,000 young people — is this not a mass gathering? 

With my cynical head on I can’t help think that this is all about protecting big business. 

This suspicion was heightened when it was announced that school closures might lead to a 3 per cent loss of GDP. 

Mass school closures will mean thousands of children needing to be cared for. Thousands of parents taking time off work. Thousands lost in profits to shareholders. 

On the other hand it might save thousands of lives. 

There is even a suggestion that the government may force through legal powers to compel schools to stay open even if head teachers believe there is a good reason to close. 

Add to this the suggestion that the government may need to remove limits to class sizes and it is clear that the health and safety of teachers and pupils is at risk.

At the weekend the joint general secretaries of the National Education Union wrote to the Prime Minister asking for an explanation for these decisions and for full disclosure on the models used for societal modelling and virus transmission — putting further pressure on the Prime Minister to explain why the response of the Tory government is so different from that of nearly every other nation. 

The government and the Department for Education needs to show some leadership at this time. Let’s put a brake on Ofsted, let’s postpone exams. 

Other things to consider are the pupils who rely on free school meals. Casual workers. Those employees on long-term contracts through agencies. The monetisation of the education industry has put many workers at risk. 

Education unions and unions in general have the chance to play an important role here by demanding protection for their workers not just in the workplace but in wider society. 

Protection from eviction, guarantees of no loss of pay if forced to self-isolate or for caring commitments are two that spring to mind. 

While we wait for a government response which may come too late, if at all, NEU reps have been taking steps of their own. 

NEU rep and activist James Kerr assembled members and they collectively agreed a number of steps. For example, they will not accept the doubling up of classes; they would seek guarantees that agency staff would be paid if off sick or in the event of school closures; they asked that directed time activities such as parents’ evenings be cancelled. 

Alex Kenny of Tower Hamlets NEU has also sent out advice to reps on issues from self-isolation to hygiene. 

As union members we need to meet and act in our workplaces — we can’t wait for Westminster.

There are though serious questions to be asked of our politicians. Are the government choosing to put the safety of teachers, support staff and pupils at risk to protect the economy? Profit before people? 

This crisis has exposed serious weakness in capitalism which is proving once again that it is unable to cope with shocks and that it will be, once again, workers who will pay the price. 

As workers we must demand that we are protected. If that means closing schools so be it. 

If the economy needs to be saved then let those with the broadest shoulders carry the biggest burden. We bailed the banks out, now they can bail us out. 

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