UNISON backs councils’ attempt to close schools amid COVID spike

‘The surge in cases in our schools is extremely concerning … Enough is enough’

UNISON has condemned the government for its refusal to allow London’s Greenwich Council to close its schools in the light of a sharp rise in cases of COVID-19 among the borough’s pupils and school staff.

Council leader Danny Thorpe had written to head teachers, asking them to move the majority of pupils to remote learning from today.

But education secretary Gavin Williams threatened the council with legal action if its schools did not remain open, citing “continuity of education as a national priority”. And today Mr Thorpe said he had “no choice” but to back down.

The confrontation came as London prepared to join those parts of the country in tier 3, amid rising rates in the capital.

UNISON national secretary for education Jon Richards said: “When we saw rising infection rates in November, UNISON called for schools to move online for the end of term, to protect pupils, staff and their local communities.

“Council Leaders in Greenwich, Islington and Waltham Forest have taken a brave stand in trying to keep infection rates down. Nobody wants to close schools unnecessarily. But at this time, as we enter a loosening of regulations over the Christmas break, we need to do everything we can to stop people getting sick.”

The coronavirus infection rate in Greenwich has risen by 49% in a week.

According to the council’s figures, at the end of last week, 3,670 Greenwich pupils and 314 staff were self-isolating. An additional 566 pupils and 43 staff joined them just yesterday.

Since the beginning of term in September, 521 pupils and staff have tested positive.

UNISON assistant branch secretary for schools and colleges at Greenwich Clara Mason said: “The surge in cases in our schools is extremely concerning. We need to protect our members. Schools need to close. Enough is enough.

“Who do we trust to deal with COVID? This appalling government or a local decision by the council based on local circumstances, knowledge of the demographic of the area and information from Public Health England?

“In our opinion, Danny Thorpe had rightly asked for schools to close – he didn’t instruct them. His request was a reasonable one in light of emerging evidence. It is just a shame that our government obviously don’t care as much as we do.”

Ms Mason added that school support staff had continued to work throughout the pandemic, including during the first lockdown, often at great personal cost.

“Despite being anxious of catching the virus themselves, they’ve ploughed through to ensure pupils are supported in school.”

It is unclear how the Waltham Forest and Islington advice to their schools to move to online learning will resolve in light of the backdown in Greenwich.