Union fear over Covid threat to teachers

JERSEY’s largest teaching union has not ruled out advising its members to refuse to attend school due to growing concerns over their safety in the light of the current Covid-19 situation.

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Tim Balston, secretary of the National Eduction Union’s Jersey branch, said that the organisation was worried about the risk teachers faced in catching the virus, in particular if the highly infectious strain recently identified in the UK was present in the Island.

Last week, another union leader, Marina Mauger of the NASUWT, said that teachers felt as if they were being treated as ‘totally expendable’ by the government due to the risks of having to attend work.

Education Minister Tracey Vallois announced on New Year’s Eve that the start of term would be delayed until Monday 11 January for government schools and a voluntary testing programme would be set up for pupils in Years 11, 12 and 13.

School staff were asked to return to work from the start of this week in preparation for the new term.

Mr Balston welcomed the minister’s new measures but added that the NEU may still issue advice for teachers not to go to work.

‘At present the union has not given specific advice to staff in Jersey not to attend school from Monday due to decreasing positive cases, the ramping up of testing for school staff and students, and other efforts by the Government of Jersey to mitigate the risk of transmission in schools,’ he said. ‘This is not to say that that advice will not change.

‘There are those members of staff who are living in a household with vulnerable and very vulnerable members, or who are vulnerable themselves, who the union would want the government to be sympathetic to concerning their return to work.’

He added: ‘The union is concerned that staff are required to attend the workplace this week, while other workers are encouraged to work from home where possible. Working from home could have included setting work remotely. Staff would have been ready to attend school to provide for the vulnerable children and those of critical workers, as they are for those students involved in exams this week. The Government of Jersey has decided not to make this offer.’

Mr Balston said that the union would continue to push the government to make schools as safe as possible and advise staff of their ‘options’.

He added that the NEU would like to see all students tested before returning to the classroom and a staggered start for physical lessons to take place to allow this to happen.

‘It is our belief that it’s likely that the new variant of the virus is in Jersey, though the government has not confirmed it yet,’ he said.

‘If so, with the risk of transmission being that much higher it would seem entirely sensible to look to provide a blended learning experience to students, that is using a rota so that students have a combination of days in school along with days at home leaning online. This would then reduce the numbers attending, help to ensure social distancing in line with the two-metre rule and thus limit the numbers who could become infected.’

The NEU has published guidance on its national website advising UK members that it feels it is ‘unsafe to attend the workplace at present’ and to prepare for remote learning.

The union has made a model letter available on its website for staff to advise head teachers they will not be attending the workplace.

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