Teachers may refuse to go back into primary schools on June 1 because of fears for pupils’ families – and not over fears for their own safety.
Membership of the National Education Union (NEU) has ballooned since the coronavirus lockdown – but they rocketed after Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered classes to reopen in 10 days.
And their leaders say teachers are terrified parents, carers and frail relatives may catch the virus as a result.
Membership of Lewisham NEU has been growing by 25 teachers every week of the past two months – but the week of the Prime Minister’s announcement it rocketed by 75.
That includes cooks, teaching assistants and administrators. More than 130 have joined Croydon NEU in the past week alone.
But they have been ordered to start reception, Year 1 and Year 6 classes whether they like it or not.
Lewisham NEU branch secretary Duncan Morrison said: “We know children are suffering from being out of school. There has been a spike in abuse at home – we want to get vulnerable kids back into school.
“But we fear making children into orphans. This is a life or death situation. Our members are very nervous.
“They are desperate to come in. But some have young children of their own and do not want them to be forced on to public transport.
“Others are pregnant or have partners who are. Others have family members with diabetes or other underlying health problems.
“Most of them know pupils who have families with those issues.
“In 10 years of teaching at Deptford Park Primary I have never had more than one white pupil and this community’s black and ethnic minority families have been disproportionately affected by coronavirus. Many pupils are cared for by grandparents.
“Poverty or living near main roads also spark underlying health conditions. Children do not seem to suffer so much – but they do spread it.
“In all of our meetings, every single member says it is not safe. I have had one single email from a teacher complaining about our stance.”
A statement from the NEU said: “Schools cannot be made safe by 1 June. It will put people’s health and lives at risk.
“The Prime Minister’s statement left many unanswered questions on testing, social distancing and contact tracing. The further guidance does not properly address teachers’ concerns.
“To prevent more unnecessary deaths schools must remain closed to children who are in a position to stay at home and stay safe.”
There has been a 43 per cent increase in deaths in Lewisham due to Covid-19 from March 1 to April 17, according to data from the Office of National Statistics.
NHS figures show 26 per cent of coronovirus deaths were patients with diabetes.
Think tank IFS says the rate of black, Asian and minority ethnic deaths in English hospitals is more than 2.5 times that of the white population.
Lewisham cabinet member for schools Chris Barnham has written to heads and governors saying: “There is no doubt a long absence from school can exacerbate inequalities and impact children’s health and well-being.
“No one should yet assume their child will be able to return to school on 1 June. Parents, children, teachers and staff should be reassured schools will only invite pupils back when a risk assessment has been undertaken and a full plan put in place. For some schools, this may be earlier than others.
“There is no pressure to send children back to school before they are ready.”
Croydon NEU agrees it won’t be safe enough for primary schools to partially reopen by June 1.
Branch secretary Joseph Flynn said: “A lot of heads aren’t happy.”
Government guidance currently states there should be a limit of 15 children per classroom. But My Flynn, who will not send his own children to school on June 1, said: “Our early thoughts are maybe 10 in a larger classroom.
“It won’t be possible to have social distance with kids of that age.”
A Department for Education spokesman said: “We want children back in schools as soon as possible because being with their teachers and friends is so important for their education and their wellbeing.
“Plans for a cautious, 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.
Schools have stayed open for the children of critical workers and vulnerable children – and will be during half-term next week.
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