Advice for members in schools and nurseries concerned about returning to work (England)
UNISON understands how important it is to open up schools again to all pupils, and especially how important it is that vulnerable children and the most disadvantaged pupils receive as much support as possible. However, UNISON has consistently opposed the premature expansion of pupil numbers in schools and nurseries in England due to health and safety concerns.
Our campaign has had successes. The government delayed pupil expansion in secondary schools until 15 June and many local authorities, academies and local schools decided that the government’s aspiration of 1 June was too early. Also, the government dropped plans for all England’s primary children to return for a month before the summer break.
To open more widely, schools and nurseries must have produced a plan and a risk assessment to ensure the safety of pupils and staff. Government guidance also says that schools must work with unions on their plans.
Risk assessments and plans are vital, and employers must consult all staff on them in good time before it is safe to return. Also, risk assessments are live documents and must be constantly updated to reflect changing circumstances.
Steps to take if you are concerned that returning to work will endanger your health or if you believe that the school plans are not adequate
If you or your branch have not been consulted on your employer’s risk assessment, or the risk assessment does not meet the standards in the relevant joint union checklist, UNISON will support you if you believe your health and safety is at serious risk if you go into your workplace.
If you have not been reassured by your employer’s plans or believe it is unsafe to return to your workplace, or your workplace has become unsafe since your return, you should ensure that you have raised all your concerns with your employer. You should also have sought the advice of your branch before declining to go in; and remembering always that you cannot refuse a reasonable instruction to return to work without a good reason.
We have set out a series of steps for members in this situation to take:
1. Urgently contact your local UNISON branch
2. Ask for a copy of your employer’s risk assessment – have you or your union branch been consulted on it? Does it comply with the joint unions’ checklist for a safe increase in pupil numbers for primary schools (which can also be used for early years settings), special schools or secondary schools?
3. If not, and you have expressed your concerns to your school, but these have not been addressed and you feel that your health and safety is at serious risk if you attend the workplace, use this template to send a letter to your employer.
Delete sections of the letter which are not relevant to your situation as indicated and highlight your specific concerns. Provide evidence about specific dangers or threats to the safety of employees at your school/early years setting, and importantly, stress your willingness to work from home – or in some other safe way – and your willingness to have further discussions about a safe return to work.
4. If other members feel the same, you and they can ask your UNISON branch to write a letter on your behalf. Ask your branch for a copy of what they have sent.
5. Please be certain that you have tried everything possible to solve your situation before considering submitting one of these letters.
Throughout this process it is important you do everything possible to speak to your UNISON branch before taking any further steps. If you are unable to discuss with your branch before sending the letter to your head teacher/employer, please state that you are sending the letter pending advice from your branch.
Please read the FAQs below on ‘Increasing pupil numbers’ for further advice.
We understand this is a stressful time and we are committed to doing all we can to support you.
We would like to thank NAHT, the main heads union, who have many members in primary schools, and have advised their members to be supportive and work together with staff during this difficult time.
Vulnerable staff and those living with vulnerable people
We have a produced a guide for members in vulnerable groups and template letter wording to send to head teachers explaining personal circumstances. The guide covers those classed as clinically extremely vulnerable or vulnerable, employees who live with/care for someone in a vulnerable group, Black employees, older employees (over 60), employees who have childcare responsibilities, and employees who are feeling anxious.
More information and advice
As well as the FAQs below which are specific to reopening, please visit our schools COVID-19 advice page to find out what UNISON has been doing and to read our full set of FAQs.
Increasing pupil numbers
My school is opening to more pupils and I am seriously concerned for my health and safety. What should I do?
UNISON has consistently opposed unsafe premature expansion of pupil numbers in primary schools and nurseries in England. We believe that it increases the risks to pupils, staff, parents and the wider community. Many councils and schools have agreed with us and are delaying the expanded return to work. Unfortunately the government has pressed ahead with its plans and some schools have already reopened more widely.
Therefore please read this advice very carefully. It outlines a series of steps you must take if you have serious specific concerns that returning to work will endanger your health or if your school’s plans are not adequate.
If you are thinking of submitting one of the letters, please read them thoroughly and look at your specific circumstances before sending them and before contacting your branch. However if you fit the criteria and have carried out the steps and have specific concerns then contact your UNISON branch before you send any of the new letters.
We understand this is an extremely stressful time and we are committed to doing all we can to support you. UNISON will support you if you believe your health and safety is at serious risk if you go into your workplace.
Do I need to tell my branch before I send in the letter to my head teacher/employer?
Yes, you must do everything possible to get in touch with your branch before sending your letter. You can find your branch here and either use the online contact form or phone number. Many branches also have their own websites with more contact details so a quick web search is usually helpful too. Branches will be exceptionally busy but it’s important that you get in touch to tell them you would like to send the letter to your employer. If you are unable to discuss this with your branch first, then send the letter to your head teacher/employer stating that you are sending it pending advice from your branch.
If several of my colleagues also feel seriously concerned that returning to work will endanger our health, can we send the letter in signed by all of us?
You can certainly work together with your colleagues to express your shared concerns. You must approach your branch or rep and let them know you would all like to submit the letter to your employer – they can submit this letter on your behalf. If your branch is extremely busy and you have not been able to speak to them, send in the members’ template letter with your colleagues and carefully state that you are sending it pending the advice of your branch.
What if I haven’t seen my school’s risk assessment, or my employer tells me it is still being completed?
Legally, schools must produce a plan and risk assessment to ensure the safety of pupils and staff. They must consult you on the risk assessment in good time and government guidance also says that schools must work with unions on their plans. If your employer hasn’t consulted on the risk assessment before you are expected to return to the workplace, request it from your school, speak to your branch and send in the letter.
If I go in to the workplace and that raises serious concerns about the safety of the workplace, can I send the letter afterwards?
Yes. If having gone into your school/setting, you feel that elements of the risk assessment have not been met and you believe you would be in serious or imminent danger if you returned to the workplace the following day, then follow the same procedure. Speak urgently to your branch before sending the letter to your employer or head teacher setting out why you feel the environment is not safe to work in.
What if I go in to the workplace and there aren’t enough pupils to warrant the numbers of staff on site?
It is worth noting that from our discussions with multi-academy trusts, only around 30% of parents have said they intend to send their reception, year 1 and year 6 children into school at the moment. Therefore if you are on the rota but the number of pupils in school does not warrant as many staff members as have been asked to be on site, you should be allowed to return home since government guidance is still to work at home where possible.
Can my employer sack me or discipline me if I don’t go in to work having sent in the letter? Will I lose pay?
Remember you are not refusing to work. The model letter makes clear that you are making yourself available to work from home but you have serious concerns about your health and safety should you return to the workplace. Similarly, pay should not be deducted as you are making yourself available for work. The letter states that where your current role cannot be done from home that you would be willing to undertake other alternative duties at your current grade that can reasonably be undertaken from your home.
If you are worried or your employer suggests that these outcomes are likely, please contact your local branch.