Coronavirus: Vulnerable staff urged to stay away as schools remain open under 'intolerable pressure'

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The National Education Union (NEU) is advising its members who are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus infection COVID-19 to stop attending schools from Monday at the latest.

The NASUWT, meanwhile, has warned the government about a “rising sense of panic” and the “intolerable pressure” facing schools and teachers.

It comes after prime minister Boris Johnson earlier this week said that everyone in the UK should stop "non-essential" travel and contact with others, working from home where possible. He has urged vulnerable members of society to self-isolate for 12 weeks from this weekend. However, he has still refused to close schools in the fight against coronavirus.

In a letter and video address to Mr Johnson on Tuesday (March 17), the NEU – which represents more than 450,000 teachers, lecturers, support staff and leaders across the UK – said that in light of his advice to vulnerable people, it would be advising its vulnerable members (or those members who care for vulnerable family members) to stay home from Monday (March 23) “at the latest”.

People with vulnerable conditions include pregnant women, those with respiratory diseases including asthma, chronic heart or liver disease, chronic neurological conditions, a learning disability or cerebral palsy, diabetes, problems with their spleen, a weakened immune system, or those who are seriously overweight.

The NEU letter states: “We assume that on this basis teachers and other school and college staff who have these conditions or who are caring for people with those conditions, or who are over 70 should self-isolate.

“We intend to advise all our members in these categories or caring for people in them to stop attending schools and colleges from next Monday at the latest. Some will do so earlier.

“We also assume that the children of parents with those conditions should also avoid school or college.”

As of Wednesday afternoon (March 18), 2,626 people in the UK have tested positive for the coronavirus, although the government’s experts estimate that the actual number of cases will be between 35,000 and 50,000. There have been 104 confirmed deaths.

The NEU has now called for schools to be officially closed. In their video address, joint general secretaries Kevin Courtney and Dr Mary Bousted said that teachers and school leaders could work on plans for more limited opening to look after the children of NHS staff, food and distribution workers, police, prison and fire brigade staff and other key workers.

Also on Tuesday, the NASUWT teaching union has warned the government about a “rising sense of panic” and the “intolerable pressure” facing schools and teachers.

General secretary Chris Keates said: “The lack of clear information with regard to the steps to protect teachers, headteachers and other staff working in schools in the context of commentators constantly referring to the threats posed by children carrying COVID-19 is causing chaos and confusion and placing intolerable pressure on all staff in schools and their families. The lack of specific information for schools understandably has created a rising sense of panic.

“Schools are struggling with ever diminishing staffing levels and are being driven to make arrangements for changes to staff working conditions which have the potential to compromise the health and safety of staff and pupils. This situation cannot be allowed to continue.

“The UK government working with governments and administrations across the UK must now make a definitive decision about the steps being taken to protect the school workforce and the closure of schools.”

It comes as Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said many schools will have to shut very soon and “will do well to get to the end of the week”.

Speaking to the BBC, Mr Barton said: "Some areas may be worst hit than others, but there's an inevitability about this. The trajectory cannot go anything other than downwards.”

ASCL and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) have been holding on-going talks with the DfE as pressure builds over the government’s refusal to close schools in the face of the coronavirus emergency. Representatives have been meeting with education secretary Gavin Williamson this week.

However, prime minister Boris Johnson in his daily coronavirus briefing yesterday evening (Tuesday, March 17) refused to be drawn on when schools might be shut down.

Asked “when are you going to close schools?” he replied: “We’re keeping that under continuous review.”

Earlier on Tuesday, a DfE statement confirmed that it wants schools to stay open for now: “The current medical and scientific advice is for schools and other educational establishments to stay open. If this changes and the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser say closing schools, colleges, and early years settings is in the best interests of children and teachers the Department will take that step.”

Mr Williamson added: “We are following the advice of our medical and scientific community every step of the way. The Chief Medical Officer has said the impact of closing schools on children’s education will be substantial, but the benefit to public health may not be.”

However, during his Tuesday briefing Mr Johnson did tackle the issue of free school meals. He said that the DfE has “a plan to make sure that parents with kids who are eligible for FSM get the compensation or the treatment they need, one way or the other. We’ve certainly anticipated that”. He said: “As we come to the decision on school (closures) we will have plans ready to go.”

Elsewhere, after insisting on Friday (March 13) that it was “business as usual”, Ofsted acted on Tuesday (March 17) to suspend all routine school inspections after coming under pressure from education unions. It follows a similar decision by Education Scotland and Estyn in Wales. See our coverage here.

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