Staff at schools have a legal right not to return to classrooms due to the spread of COVID, a leading union has said – while another has started legal proceedings against the Department for Education.
The National Education Union (NEU) has said all primary schools should remain closed for at least two weeks following the Christmas break, and is urging Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to move all learning online as infections continue to rise.
And the government’s handling of the situation has prompted the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) union, along with the Association of School and College Leaders, to make preliminary steps in legal proceedings.
The NASUWT union has also called for an “immediate nationwide move to remote education” for all pupils.
It comes after an embarrassing government U-turn, which means all primary schools in London will remain shut next week to contain the new, highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, said: “We have asked the government to share the evidence justifying distinctions drawn between primary and secondary schools, the geographical distinctions they have made and the evidence justifying the compulsory introduction of mass-testing.”
The union said it is now waiting for the government’s response.
Kevin Courtney, the NEU’s joint general secretary, said its members have “a legal right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions which are a danger to their health and to the health of their school communities and more generally”.
He said: “We are calling on Gavin Williamson to actually do what he professes he does – to follow the science and announce, now, that primary schools in England should move learning online – apart from key worker and vulnerable children, for at least the first two weeks of January.”
“Whilst we are calling on the government to take the right steps as a responsible Union we cannot simply agree that the government’s wrong steps should be implemented.”
Mr Williamson said on Friday that primary schools in all 32 London boroughs will remain shut next week – rather than just those in certain boroughs as he had announced days earlier.
He also signalled more schools outside London could close by warning that the list of closures is being kept under review.
Announcing his climbdown, Mr Williamson said: “Children’s education and wellbeing remains a national priority. Moving further parts of London to remote education really is a last resort and a temporary solution.
“As infection rates rise across the country, and particularly in London, we must make this move to protect our country and the NHS. We will continue to keep the list of local authorities under review, and reopen classrooms as soon as we possibly can.”
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, suggested that a two-week closure could allow viral levels to go down after a period over Christmas when mixing may have raised infections.
Dr Bousted also cast doubt on plans to roll out mass testing in secondary schools, describing preparations as “chaotic”.
“Schools are going to find this incredibly difficult to get this up and running in time and to do it as well as public health would be doing it because they’re health professionals,” she said.