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Trade unions announce school and university ‘reopening tests’

Unions have announced that five tests must be met to ensure staff and student safety before colleges can reopen. 

The University and College Union (UCU), the National Education Union (NEU), and Unite, among others, have proposed tests they feel will prevent schools from becoming COVID-19 hotspots. 

These tests include: a lower number of COVID-19 cases, a national plan for social distancing which extends beyond the classroom, widespread testing, a health and safety strategy, and protection for the vulnerable. 

This was announced as a response to new government guidance. From June 1, primary schools will welcome back students in increments. Beginning with Reception, Year 1, and Year 6, schools are expected to stagger arrivals of students and put children into smaller classes.

UCU General Secretary Jo Grady said: “Staff and student health is the number one priority and nobody should be going back to college until it is safe to do so.”

The unions insist that social distancing must extend beyond the classroom. This includes transport to and from colleges for students and staff. There must also be a plan on social mixing and physical distancing. 

Staff and students who are vulnerable, or live with a vulnerable person, must be permitted to stay at home. To minimise the opportunity for a potential COVID-19 break out in colleges, the unions have called for anyone who can work from home to do so. 

Staff and student health is the number one priority and nobody should be going back to college until it is safe to do so

– Jo Grady

Siobhan Endean, Unite National Officer, said: “Unite workplace representatives are at the forefront of dealing with the COVID-19 crisis in the education sector. These five tests set out a clear roadmap to reopening at a time when the health and safety of all staff, students and others can be assured. 

“Risk assessments are crucial to this and can be carried out effectively where Unite members remain central to the process, with appropriate adjustments being made, enforcement in place and provision of PPE where necessary to ensure the ongoing health of all involved.”

The unions also stress that a whole college strategy for health and safety should include regular deep cleaning, stringent hygiene, and provision of PPE.

New government guidance stated that there will only be a gradual return to education based on the latest scientific advice. Schools and colleges should increase cleaning and utilise outdoor space. 

The government emphasised that it is incredibly important schools and colleges begin to reopen as it is vital for mental wellbeing to sustain learning and social interaction and have assured “students and staff in all settings will be eligible for testing”. 

Speaking to BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, the former Education Secretary Michael Gove said: “It is the case that it is the case that it is extremely unlikely that any school is likely to be the source of a Covid outbreak.

“But there is always, always, always, in any loosening of these restrictions, a risk of people catching the coronavirus.”  

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