Staff and student safety must be guaranteed before colleges can reopen, said trade unions today (Wednesday) as they set out five tests* that must be met by government and colleges.

Unions representing staff working in further education colleges called for stringent hygiene measures, protection for vulnerable people and isolation for all suspected cases to avoid colleges becoming Covid-19 hotspots.

The unions said that social distancing plans had to extend beyond the classroom to cover things like travelling to and from college and socialising.

To help deal with those challenges, they said that staff and students who can work from home should continue to do so. 

The unions were responding to government guidance setting out how some students may return to face-to-face teaching in colleges from 1 June.

The guidance stated that:

“We will ask secondary schools, sixth form and further education colleges to offer some face-to-face support to supplement the remote education of year 10 and year 12 students who are due to take key exams next year, alongside the full time provision they are offering to priority groups.”

University and College Union general secretary Jo Grady said:

‘Staff and student health is the number one priority and nobody should be going back to college until it is safe to do so. The government needs to work us to address the national challenges, while individual colleges should work with their local union reps to address the unique challenges they will face.’

GMB national officer Stuart Fegan said:

‘The public expects the government to put in place all reasonable steps to ensure the safety of students and workers in further education institutions. What the joint trade unions are calling for in these five key tests is reasonable, proportionate and wholly necessary.’

National Education Union joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said:

‘Safety has to be the overriding concern. Planning for wider reopening should focus on ensuring safety is assured if and when the college reopens, not on meeting Government deadlines which may well prove unrealistic.’

UNISON national education officer Leigh Powell said:

‘Managers and unions must work together to make colleges safe places to work and study. Cutting corners by skimping on full risk assessments and rigorous cleaning regimes, or limiting provision of protective equipment, risk pushing us back to square one. Staff and students need to be know that everything that can be done to protect their health has been done.’

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Unite national officer Siobhan Endean said:

‘Unite workplace representatives are at the forefront of dealing with the Covid-19 crisis in the education sector. These five tests set out a clear roadmap to reopening at a time when the health and safety of all staff, students and others can be assured. Risk assessments are crucial to this and can be carried out effectively where Unite members remain central to the process, with appropriate adjustments being made, enforcement in place and provision of PPE where necessary to ensure the ongoing health of all involved."

A Department for Education 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 1 June, 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.”

Rebecca Long Bailey MP, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, said:

“Labour shares concerns that the inequalities that already exist will widen while schools are closed, and returning to school when it is safe to do so is a priority for the sake of pupils' education and wellbeing.

"But there are serious problems with the proposed plan to reopen schools on 1 June, which have been raised by parents, school leaders, teaching staff and trade unions.

"Labour urges the Government to urgently work collaboratively with trade unions to create clear conditions, based on the tests they have set out, so that every school can implement them to ensure a safe return. Schools should only reopen when those safety conditions have been met.”

The five tests:

Test 1: Much lower numbers of Covid-19 cases

The new case count must be much lower than it is now, with a sustained downward trend and confidence that new cases are known and counted promptly. And the Government must have extensive, open and transparent arrangements in place for testing, contact tracing and isolating those with Covid-19 symptoms.

Test 2: A national plan for social distancing

The Government must have a national plan in place which includes parameters for both appropriate physical distancing and safe levels of social mixing in all further education settings. To help ensure physical distancing during travel and at colleges, all staff and students who can work and study from home must continue to do so.

Test 3: Comprehensive testing

Comprehensive access to regular testing for students and staff, with isolation for all suspected cases, to ensure colleges don’t become hotspots for Covid-19. In addition to routine testing, protocols to be in place to ensure testing across whole college sites and other non-college work-based learning sites whenever a confirmed case of Covid-19 occurs. 

Test 4: A whole college strategy for health and safety

Risk assessments and safe ways of working for all tasks and spaces within a college should be established with relevant staff and unions in advance. This should include regular deep cleaning and stringent hygiene measures. Where PPE is identified as required by risk assessments, supplies of these are secured before re-opening of affected areas. Strategy to be clearly communicated to all stakeholders.

Test 5: Protection for the vulnerable

Vulnerable staff, and staff who live with vulnerable people, must work from home, fulfilling their professional duties to the extent that is possible. Plans must specifically address the protection of all staff, students and members of their households who are vulnerable to Covid-19.

The Five Unions are: University and College Union, GMB, National Education Union, UNISON, and Unite

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