Independent Sage has issued a report detailing how the government should proceed to open schools. It states that schools should be the last to close down in a lockdown and the first to open- not because of the economy- but because of the negative impact on the children themselves.
However, there are certain criteria that must be met in order for schools to open and at the moment, none of these are being met.
From the report
Measures should be taken immediately to ensure that school students can return to in-person learning as soon as possible. These include:
• Tighter regulation of everyday activities to bring down infection rates more quickly. People are still allowed to enter each other’s houses as cleaners, tradespeople and estate agents. Religious gatherings are still permitted. The definition of essential worker is so loosely drawn as to require many more people to attend workplaces than in the first lockdown. It is plainly not the case that schools have been the last to ‘close’ and this must change if ‘closures’ are to be as short as possible.
• In combination with tighter regulation, there must be greater support for people to stay at home. This includes a legal duty on employers to allow staff to work from home if possible, and where that is not possible, easier access to furlough payments which, at present, are denied to many (including most working parents).
• The school environment should be transformed to minimise the risk of infection transmission. This should include, where possible, use of outside spaces, enabling adequate ventilation in all classrooms; free provision of good quality face coverings for all pupils at primary and secondary levels.
No support for staying safe
It is clear that the key problem is the fact that so many people are being forced out to work because employers have claimed them to be essential. And many workers will go along with this because they need the money. Another study mentioned in the briefing found that of there are 1 in 5 of people going out to work who say they could work from home if their boss would let them. Another study, in the London Borough of Newham, found that the reasons given for going out to work was needing the money and fear of losing their job.
Linked to this is the problem of only one in five people self-isolating when they have been diagnosed with Covid. This can be compared to New York City which has 80% complying. The main reason for this is again financial worries- low level of sick pay or none, fear of losing jobs, and the problem of claiming furlough and the payments that have been promised.
Sick pay a key issue
Statutory sick pay was amongst the lowest in Europe even before the pandemic (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/coronavirus-sick-pay-uk-self-isolate-europe-outbreak-cases-a9393831.html). Instead of increasing it as many countries have done, the government has kept it at under 100 pounds a week, completely inadequate at the best of times and a travesty during a pandemic. If people are to self-isolate then they need to be financially secure. Even the Financial Times recognises this:
Sarah O’Conner’s recent article in the Financial Times emphasised SSP’s role in enabling workers to quarantine and prevent the spread of coronavirus, although the low rate of SSP means that time off work is a luxury many cannot afford. The UK has the lowest mandatory sick pay for COVID-19 sufferers amongst OECD countries as a proportion of the average worker’s earnings. In the UK, SSP is just £95.85 per week, and workers earning less than £120 per week do not receive anything. The government has introduced self-isolation payments to poorer households and changed the SSP rules so that it applies from the first day of absence from work as opposed to the fourth day; nonetheless Frances O’Grady of the TUC said that this does not go far enough, “Two million workers still don’t earn enough to qualify for statutory sick pay. They can’t afford not to work. And statutory sick pay still isn’t enough to live on.”
Governments rush to open schools
In the next month we will see that all the UK governments will be competing with each other to see who can open schools first. Scotland already has plans to reopen in mid-February. Many university departments are already asking staff to start up face-to-face teaching again. All of this must be resisted. It will only be safe to go back once case numbers are significantly lower and safety measures are put in place in educational settings. And since this is going to be some time, given the mess the government is making of dealing with the pandemic, we have to keep resisting any return to the classroom.