Support staff losing sleep and suffering anxiety ahead of return to school in England, says UNISON

Jon Richards says delay needed so schools have time to complete risk assessments

Anxiety is widespread among school workers about their safety, their families’ and that of pupils ahead of a return to the classroom across England, says UNISON today (Thursday).

On the day unions are due to meet with education secretary Gavin Williamson, UNISON has published a catalogue of concerns from support staff who make up more than half the schools’ workforce.

Teaching assistants, catering staff, administrative workers, caretakers and other school employees have told the union they are being banned from wearing protective masks, denied gloves when handing packed lunches to parents and being spat at by children with behavioural issues.

These issues are among hundreds reported to UNISON’s PPE alert web page by support staff, including many who have continued to work in schools during the lockdown.

They also include accounts of having to buy their own hand sanitiser, parents failing to social distance when they visit and working without hot water in schools attended by the children of key workers.

In separate findings, a survey by UNISON based on responses from 12,781 support staff has found that three in ten (30%) are losing sleep, suffering high anxiety or both as a result of plans to open schools more widely in England. Only a small minority (4%) said that schools had adequate personal protective equipment (PPE).

The union is calling on ministers to make schools have enough PPE to protect staff, their families and the children they look after from the risks of infection from coronavirus.

UNISON head of education Jon Richards said: “Support staff are essential to schools running properly and they shouldn’t have to feel scared about doing their jobs.

“But it’s no wonder they feel anxious and are losing sleep – and that makes for worried parents too.

“Schools need much more time to complete their risk assessments and ensure that, wherever possible, support staff aren’t being made to fill in for teachers.

“Parents need their minds putting at rest that teaching assistants, catering workers and other support staff have access to all the masks and gloves they need. Or they simply won’t send their children back.

“A delay to the reopening plans will allow unions and government the space to work together to reassure staff and families in England that the return to school can happen safely.”

Notes to editors:
Comments made by school support staff in emails to UNISON’s PPE alert include:

  • “I‘m making packed lunches in a primary school and also work as a cleaner (in a primary school). I have to hand over the lunches to the children’s parents each day and was told I cannot have gloves as they are a risk.”
  • “We’ve been told we can’t wear masks. But if a child has a first aid issue then we have to be close to that pupil to administer first aid.”
  • “I’m a teaching assistant working with key worker children. We have no PPE – no hand sanitiser, no gloves, nothing. We have soap but no hot water.”
  • “The school cannot source sanitiser anywhere so we need to supply our own and claim the money back from the school.”
  • “Parents aren’t maintaining distance at the door, and children aren’t being sent in clean clothes as requested. I was coughed on twice today and a child sneezed on me.”
  • “I’ve worked one-to-one with a pupil who on the first day spat at me. He’s aggressive and they’ve placed us in a small room together. My daughter has asthma – I’m so worried we considered sending her to grandparents until this is over. We’ve been told not to wear masks because they could scare the children.”

– UNISON is the UK’s largest union, with more than 1.3 million members providing public services – in education, local government, the NHS, police service and energy. They are employed in the public, voluntary and private sectors.

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