Statistics from the Department of Education (DfE) have revealed that the rate of COVID-19 infection among school staff in England is noticeably higher than the rate of infection in the general population – and even higher than it is for teachers.
One report has suggested that rates for school staff could be three times higher in primary schools and almost seven times higher in special schools than in the general population.
There are estimates that, in the current lockdown, although the government has said that everyone should work from home where possible, 39% of teachers and school leaders and 51% of teaching assistants and other staff are working on-site in open settings.
UNISON head of education Jon Richards said: “UNISON has been telling the government for months that school staff are at a higher risk from the virus than others.
“Our members are the ones who work closely in settings where children and young people struggle with social distancing. And we told the government that they needed extra protection at work.
“With more pupils in schools than the last lockdown, there is more reason to take urgent action. And now the bald facts are out there, the government needs to take our recommendations seriously.”
Writing to the secretary of state for education, UNISON says urgent action is needed.
“The most vulnerable children should be in school,” it notes, but “the wider definition of vulnerable has led to a massive increase in numbers attending special schools and this is both putting support staff in those schools at risk and undermining the effects of reducing community transmission”.
UNISON is calling for urgent additional measures for special schools. These include:
- the current list of who can be included as a vulnerable learners or the offspring of a critical worker to be urgently reviewed. The recently issued DfE guidance to reduce numbers does not go far enough;
- updated guidance to be issued, stating that it will not be possible for every student with an education, health and care plan to attend their special school or an alternative setting, and instead further emphasise that schools should be the judges of who needs to attend;
- schools should carry out individual risk assessments of each pupil with the emphasis on only attending the site where a pupil’s circumstances mean that it is genuinely not possible for them to be educated at home. If necessary, a rota system or part-time learning option may need to be planned in order to balance time in school for students with pandemic safety;
- IT provision – currently underway by the DfE – should be prioritised to special school and pupils at alternative provision settings, with any specialist adaptions needed to access learning made;
- vaccination policy is rightly directed towards saving lives – the increased risk now evident among support staff in special schools mean that these staff should be prioritised in the second phase of rollout.