Wigan education trade unionists have major concerns over school return plan

The borough’s branch of the National Education Union (NEU) says teachers are extremely worried about the prospect of schools re-opening on June 1.
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Prime minister Boris Johnson has said he hopes children in reception, year one and year six could be back in class on that date.

It is then hoped that pupils will gradually return, with those secondary school teenagers facing exams getting time with their teachers and most primary school children going back into class before the summer holidays.

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But the NEU Wigan has raised major doubts about how social distancing will work in classrooms and how to ensure the virus is not passed around in schools and then taken home where vulnerable family members could be infected.

Children could be returning to the classroom from June 1Children could be returning to the classroom from June 1
Children could be returning to the classroom from June 1

The idea of capping class sizes at 15 has also raised logistical questions.

NEU Wigan joint district secretary Max Atkins says that on some recent days he has been fielding up to 100 emails from teachers and support staff worried about what the coming weeks and months holds.

And both the NEU and the NASUWT have made it clear they are not happy about what ministers are asking of their members.

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The Department for Education (DfE) says it has taken expert advice and will continue to consult with the unions.

NEU Wigan joint district secretary Max AtkinsNEU Wigan joint district secretary Max Atkins
NEU Wigan joint district secretary Max Atkins

Mr Atkins said: “If you are in a confined classroom for six or seven hours with children who could be carrying the virus and then go home to your own family it is going to be transmitted.

“We have quite a few vulnerable staff members and others living with people who are shielding. They’ve been taking good care of them for weeks and it’s all going to go to pot if they have to go back to the classroom.

“Our members want to be back in work but at the end of the day it’s a health and safety issue.

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“Children, especially in early years, aren’t going to social distance. They are going to hug each other when they’ve not seen each other for eight or nine weeks. How are you going to do play-based things in early years if they have to be on their own at a distance?

“We’ve got problems with children being dropped off at school and all coming in at the same time.

“There are going to be up to 15 children in a classroom, and one union says even that is not possible in most schools, so children are going to be in on a fortnightly basis.

“And if someone gets the virus the school will have to close for a few days, which will again throw everything into chaos.

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“There are so many things that haven’t been thought through in the rush to get people back to work and into school.

“We’ve been inundated with messages from members worried about having to go back.”

Despite the attempts to send children back to school in year groups Mr Atkins says in reality schools will end up with pupils from other years if their parents have to go to work, just as currently they are provided facilities for the children of key workers.

The numbers coming into school are already going up. Mr Atkins said figures he asked for showed that on May 11 there were 257 more children in Wigan’s schools than there had been on April 27.

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A JPIMedia survey found many Wiganers share apprehension about children going back, with 43 per cent of parents quizzed saying they were “not at all comfortable” with their child heading into the classroom on June 1 and a further 24.75 per cent “not very comfortable” with that.

A DfE spokesperson said: “We want children back in schools as soon as it is safe to do so because it is the best place for them to learn and benefit from important social interactions.

“Plans for a phased return of some year groups from June 1, at the earliest, are based on the best scientific and medical advice. The welfare of children and staff has been at the heart of all decision making.

“We have engaged closely with the unions throughout the past seven weeks and will continue to do so, including to develop further guidance for the sector.”

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