Fight for a safe return to school – Children’s lives matter

While every parent and education worker in Northern Ireland is looking forward to the day that schools are up and running again they do not want it to be at the expense of the lives of their children, their relatives or education workers.  So, the recent unrealistic announcements by the Stormont Assembly Executive of a forced-march back to school two weeks before the end of the summer holidays, without putting appropriate safety measures in place, is filling both parents and staff with dread.

Unfortunately the establishment politicians do not seem to share the concerns of parents.  For the Assembly the drive for full return to classes appears to be largely motivated by big business demanding that workers are back on the production line, into the office and behind the shop counters making them a fat profit.  For that to happen they know that they must force an end to parents staying at home to protect their children.

In the race to make schools return, the Stormont Assembly is prepared to scrap previous health and safety advice that they themselves have given up until now. In fact, bizarrely, the Assembly politicians are now saying that 1 metre distancing in a stuffy classroom is good enough for children but it is literally only a few weeks ago that the very same Assembly sent the police to use draconian Covid-19 legalisation against the same young people for holding open air anti-racist events even though they were socially distanced 2 metres apart.

The preparation to force schools back has been accompanied by an orchestrated attack on education workers by some politicians and sections of the media. There has been a shameful attempt to imply that education workers don’t have the interest of children at heart. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that many education workers have been working exceptionally hard over the last period.

Most schools have not been closed during the C19 crisis.  In fact they have been supporting the children of ‘key’ workers – meaning teachers and non-teaching staff have been constantly working to support children and parents.  Cleaners, for example, have been carrying out deep cleans to keep the environment safe. So why has this media and political barrage suddenly started against schools, unions and staff?  Clearly it is an attempt to bully the Boards of Governors and the unions into going over the heads of staff and enforcing the will of the Assembly.

If the political parties in the NI Assembly Executive get away with stampeding schools’ reopening without properly dealing with safety there will be an inevitable spread of C19 amongst children with all the potentially horrible consequences that go with this debilitating virus.

It is time for the trade unions in education to step forward and demand a change in approach. What is needed is a child-safety led approach to getting back to school. That can only be assured if education trade unions, pupils, parents and independent health and safety experts are central to working out a detailed plan for returning and the NI Assembly must make the money available to ensure schools are safe for children and all education workers.

How can we keep children safe in schools? Education workers, pupils and parents must ensure that…

  • Continued support is available for home schooling options until it is safe for children to return.
  • ‘Vulnerable’ staff and those shielding vulnerable family members must be allowed to continue to work from home.
  • Frequent testing and a system of contact tracing is available to minimise the spread of C19 in schools.
  • Social distancing of 2 metres is maintained and based on the safety of children and unsafe attempts to squeeze more children into a classroom are ended.
  • Additional school transport is provided so that social distancing and all other safety measures can be applied.
  • Additional classroom space is made available through the use of appropriate mobiles and public service buildings.
  • A building programme is commenced immediately to deal with the shortage of appropriate permanent school premises.
  • There is immediate recruitment of additional permanent teaching and non-teaching posts so that class sizes can be permanently reduced and safe distancing can be maintained.
  • Appropriate PPE, based on real assessment of actual need, is immediately provided.
  • There is an end to the deeply unpopular 11+ type tests that have put children, parents, staff and schools under horrendous pressure to take unnecessary risks.
  • There are no cuts in the terms and conditions, pay or pensions of education staff.


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