Support staff: More at risk from Covid-19?

Written by: Jon Richards | Published:
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Data shows that Covid-19 is more of a risk for BAME people, those in poverty and older citizens. Many school support staff fall into these categories and yet have not featured in government modelling, says Jon Richards

With coronavirus lockdown easing I am severely torn. On the personal side, I will get to spend some time with my (young adult) children his week, for the first time in three months. But on the professional side I worry that the government is chancing its arm.

With just over a week before secondaries start expanding pupil numbers, there are huge risks that the progress made in reducing numbers of cases and deaths could be undermined.

Having heard the scientific evidence at first hand it seems clear that, overall, younger children do not get as sick from the virus as adults. So, I can see the logic of why the government chose to bring back the youngest in primary schools first.

And that would be fine if they lived in their own bubble – but they don’t, and data on transmission and infections rates are not so clear.

Small children mix up close with their families, staff and others in the community and every additional interaction increases risks.

I know that many school staff have been desperate to get back to work, but many more are anxious too. In just a few days, more than 45,000 of our school support staff members responded to a survey we sent out to ask how they are feeling.

Results were stark: only two per cent felt it was safe expanding pupil numbers from Monday (June 1) and 96 per cent suspect the decision has been made on purely economic grounds.

These responses were not just from people sat at home worrying – almost two-thirds of the respondents were already back doing some work in school.

Those concerns and the premature push to return by the government are why we have taken a strong line in recent weeks and why we have continued to press the Department for Education (DfE).

The scientists advising the government – the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) – have produced useful data about potential risks to children and schools and at our meeting with them they said their data showed that teachers were at a lower risk than the general workforce.

However, at the meeting they could not produce equivalent data for support staff and despite subsequent meetings and reminders to the DfE we have yet to see any information on this.

This matters. We know that different personal characteristics increase the risks. Public Health England’s disparities in risk and outcomes review, launched this week, confirms that staff from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds face higher risks. So too do older staff and those who live in economically disadvantaged areas. Precisely, the report (PHE, 2020) states:

  • People from Black ethnic groups were most likely to be diagnosed. Death rates from Covid-19 were highest among people of Black and Asian ethnic groups.
  • People who live in deprived areas have higher diagnosis rates and death rates than those living in less deprived areas.
  • Covid-19 diagnosis rates increased with age for both males and females.

Compared generally to teachers, support staff are generally older, less well-off and – if UNISON membership figures are representative – the percentage of Black support staff is around twice that in the teacher workforce (although we cannot be sure on this point as the DfE does not publish detailed workforce information for support staff like it does for teachers).

It is for this reason that UNISON is calling on schools to ensure that their risk assessments specifically address the extra risks that exist for staff that fall into these categories.

Recently, we have raised with the DfE and others a number of issues that came out of our survey and which have been raised with us directly by members. These include:

  • Concerns at the strong-arm tactics that a small number of schools have deployed to try to force workers back in.
  • Issues around inexperienced and untrained teaching assistants being asked to cover as schools split classes and form social bubbles.
  • Staff with more than one job who are moving across bubbles and classes.
  • The position of first-aiders if they need to do CPR on a pupil.

As secondary schools prepare to re-open from June 15 – a date which was sensibly delayed in line with recommendations from the Independent SAGE group of preeminent scientists and experts – many more staff will be experiencing anticipation or trepidation at the thought of going back.

If ever there was a time for openness, transparency and joint working it is now. Sadly, we have already had to report one academy chain to the Health and Safety Executive for not working with us and hiding cases of Covid-19 in a couple of its schools.

Good employers have been working with their unions and staff to ensure that risk assessments are right and that staff who cannot do their normal job are redeployed or continue to work from home.

Even the secretary of state has finally agreed that support staff unions should be invited to ministerial meetings alongside the teacher unions.

This period is testing the capacity of schools and our local representatives, but where the safety of pupils and staff is a common goal, and the focus is on opening when it is safe to do so, we can begin to find the path to some form of normality.

  • Jon Richards is national secretary, education at UNISON.

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