Education unions renew calls for a meeting with Sheffield Council to discuss Covid-19 safety concerns
Education unions have once again demanded action to make schools and universities safe for scholars and staff amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a joint letter to Sheffield Council last month, several proposals were outlined by Unison, NEU and UCU to reduce the rates of infection in educational establishments and keep as many students in schools and colleges as possible.
The letter stresses an ‘urgent' need to make rapid testing available for employees in schools, colleges, and universities, as well as a reduction in bubble sizes and crowding.
It also calls for immediate laptop access for disadvantaged children and asks for a meeting with council leaders to devise a plan to “move forward as safely as possible.”
The three unions, which represent educational staff across the city, said that although “much that has gone well in schools since September” the current situation is “simply not sustainable.”
They added: “We are asking you, as chair, to meet urgently with all the educational trade union representatives to discuss implementing a plan for Sheffield schools, colleges and universities in order to protect our communities, students and staff from the virus and to ensure the best possible education provision for all.”
Unable to get the response they had hoped for, the Sheffield Trades Council – which brings together the city’s unions – held a public meeting online in which representatives from Public Health Sheffield; Sheffield Council; Learn Sheffield; and Sheffield’s MPs were invited to discuss the issues raised relating to Covid-19 and educational settings.
Despite this most did not attend the meeting on December 2, although some did have a valid excuse and gave prior notification.
Speaking on behalf of Sheffield’s Education Trade Unions, Simon Murch – Joint Branch and District Secretary of the Sheffield National Education Union – said: “[In regards to the letter] we got the response that we expected.
"The council said everything was fine – schools and educational settings are doing all they can to make sure that everything is OK. We feel like that isn’t good enough and frankly it’s not true.
"Schools have gone above and beyond in some cases but it is still problematic because you have large numbers of people in a poorly ventilated space which sometimes is not very big.”
Mr Murch said that unions had previously held talks with Sheffield Hallam MP, Olivia Blake, to discuss the situation and, on the back of the virtual meeting, are organising a meeting with Sheffield Heeley MP, Louise Haigh.
He added: "Sheffield City Council have some responsibility, they issue guidance to the schools. Because of academisation, less than half of the schools are actually local authority controlled so they can do what they want.
"One of the things we wanted to highlight is that Greg Fell, Sheffield's Director of Public Health, has said they won’t share any data on covid infections, whether that be in schools, colleges, care homes. That’s the case in Sheffield but other local authorities are much more upfront and helpful in providing that data.
"Thinking about a parental point of view, if you knew there was large numbers of covid cases in the school that might change how you approach sending your children there. We’re not asking for individual information, we just want to know where the cases are.
"Another thing is the advice that Sheffield Council gives to schools, although academies don’t have to follow that advice, generally they do.
"We’re constantly fighting against them instead of working together. These are things we wanted to tease out in the meeting but they politely declined.”
The unions now want more transparency from Sheffield Council who they say should lead by example in hopes that multi-academy trusts will follow – introducing better safety measures for staff and pupils and allowing those who are clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) to continue working from home, as they are currently being told to attend work.
Andrew Jones, Director of Education and Skills at Sheffield City Council said: "Our priority throughout the pandemic has always been to keep people safe. As restrictions and our local position change, we continue to work closely with schools, colleges and universities in Sheffield.
"Our education settings have measures in place to limit the risk of transmission and we monitor this carefully and provide support and advice.
"Since May we have met with education based unions on a weekly basis to discuss issues and concerns. We value their input, and the points raised have helped to shape our approach.
"On this occasion we were unable to attend the requested additional meeting, but our Cabinet Member for Education and Skills has offered to meet with those concerned separately.
"As well as our meetings with the unions, we hold regular public meetings such as the Local Covid-19 Prevention and Management Board, Full Council and Scrutiny Committees where anyone can ask questions and give feedback. Details of all public meetings are available at http://democracy.sheffield.gov.uk/.
“Across all council services we regularly communicate through a wide range of channels to provide information and reassurance to local people. Our Director of Public Health also writes to all parents of school and early years age children to keep them directly updated with the latest schools information.
“Schools and higher education settings are vital for children and young people’s learning and emotional well-being and we are extremely grateful to all education staff in the city who have worked so hard to introduce and adapt to Covid-secure environments."