Teachers going back into schools in Derby this week face the mental dilemma of wanting to help pupils but knowing they are entering an “unsafe” workplace each day, according to a leading city teaching union official.
Kieran Picken, Derby branch secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said teachers “have had to make a *Faustian pact by returning to work, where we know that simply by being there we are helping to contribute to spreading a deadly disease“.
Mr Picken was speaking out after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that a new four-week lockdown in England would start on Thursday and would not include schools, colleges and universities.
The NEU nationally is campaigning for schools to be close, arguing that they have become a source of community transmission.
It also comes as an increasing numbers of schools in the city are having to tell pupils to stay home because of a shortage of staff who are self-isolating, including Derby Moor Academy and St Benedict Catholic Academy.
Mr Picken said that back in September, the Government was warned that health and safety measures in schools were only workable in the context of low numbers of community coronavirus cases.
He said: “We knew that social distancing between students had never been a possibility.
“We also knew that students would be unlikely to remain in their bubbles before or after school and the lack of strong guidance on wearing masks would make things more difficult.
“We also knew that it would be particularly difficult in secondary schools where students will see many different teachers and students throughout the day, and where symptomatic cases of Covid-19 would be more common because of the size of the schools and age of the students.
“However that is not to say that primary schools, nurseries or special schools are somehow safer – cases have risen dramatically in primary aged students too.”
Mr Picken points to the Government’s own Covid-19 surveillance reports which show cases in all educational settings have risen to date.
He said: “We know that when rates climb, schools are major vehicles for transmission of coronavirus.
“Derby now has higher numbers of cases than during the first peak in the spring. Unsurprisingly, during the last half term we were getting reports from many schools across the city of Covid-19 positive cases, in both primary and secondary schools.
“Increasingly, schools are facing staffing issues as staff have to self-isolate. There has not been sufficient funding from the Government to account for an increased need for supply staff during this time.”
Mr Picken said that the union had argued for Nightingale schools that can be set up when a school needs to completely or partially close due to an outbreak or provide smaller class sizes to reduce the risk of transmission.
He said: “For the time being we are clearly past that. As a union, our focus must be on whether schools can safely remain open – safe for staff, students and the community that will face larger numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths if we remain open when the situation is severe enough to require a national lockdown for everybody else.
“Nationally, we call for the government to include schools in this lockdown as we know it will reduce transmission.. In the absence of a national school closure, if members feel their school is unsafe we will support them however we can.
“Members want to be in schools and doing their jobs. Many still want to even as the situation worsens.
“However, for many of us we are trying to balance our desire to keep working with the young people we are here to support and teach with the undeniable fact that our workplaces are clearly unsafe for us, the students and their families and communities.
“This isn’t to attack school leaders or individual employers, the vast majority of whom are fully aware that they face the same dilemma as those at the chalkface and are trying to do their jobs in impossible circumstances.
“We have worked closely with employers wherever we can to help keep schools open safely, but events are rapidly overtaking us.
“I don’t know what the next week will bring, but I don’t think we can go on like this.”
*A Faustian pact is where a person trades something of supreme moral or spiritual importance, such as personal values, for some worldly or material benefit. It is based on the story of Faust, from German legend, who sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for worldly pleasures.