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Government must do more to keep schools open and safe, education unions say

Giving all staff priority testing, reducing the size of pupil ‘bubbles’ and making face coverings compulsory on school buses would help ensure schools can continue to stay open in the coming weeks, education unions say today (Tuesday).

In a joint letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson, several proposals are outlined by UNISON, GMB and Unite to reduce the risk of infection for children and staff, and reduce the likelihood of entire schools closing.

The letter stresses that all school employees should have priority access to testing – not just teachers – and full pay must be given to lower paid workers who need to isolate. It also calls for more information to be shared with staff about suspected Covid-19 cases at their schools.

The three unions – representing school support staff across the UK including teaching assistants, technicians, catering workers, cleaning staff, caretakers, and receptionists – say the government must introduce additional measures to halt rising infections.

UNISON head of education Jon Richards said: “It takes just one infection at a school to disrupt learning, potentially for dozens of children, as well as putting the health of staff and families in the community at risk.

“The government’s lack of clarity means it’s not clear if teaching assistants are covered by the new testing rules. But without testing for caretakers and cleaners some schools won’t open, and pupils and staff won’t be safe.

“With the virus taking hold again, the government must use all options to reduce the spread. School closures will create further childcare difficulties for key workers, who the country will be depending upon in the coming months.”

GMB national officer Karen Leonard said: “GMB and other unions have worked hard throughout the summer to ensure schools stayed safe for pupils, staff and parents – despite vilification from the Conservative establishment.

“With Covid cases increasing throughout the whole of the UK, we have written to the government setting out constructive suggestions for our schools – including full contractual sick pay for all those working in our schools.”

Unite national officer Ian Woodland said: “As we enter the second wave of Covid-19, it is vital that everything is done to keep schools open to provide a solid education for the next generation of employees.

“The key to this is a comprehensive ‘test and trace’ system for staff and schoolchildren – something, in the eight months of the pandemic, the government has conspicuously failed to provide.

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