On Friday, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed that all London primary schools will remain shut next week as the capital battles with high levels of coronavirus infections.
Now a leading teaching union will inform its members of their legal right not to return to classrooms due to unsafe conditions amid the pandemic.
Most other primary schools in England are expected to still open on Monday while secondary schools will reopen on a staggered basis, with exam year pupils returning on January 11 and others returning a week later.
Unions representing teachers and support staff have since called for delays to the reopening of schools across the country.
On Saturday, the National Education Union (NEU), which represents the majority of teachers, said it would be informing its members of their legal right not to work in unsafe conditions as it called for all primary schools to move online.
Refuse to work
The union’s joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: “Whilst we are calling on the Government to take the right steps, as a responsible union we cannot simply agree that the Government’s wrong steps should be implemented.
“That is why we are doing our job as a union by informing our members that they have a legal right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions which are a danger to their health and to the health of their school communities and more generally.
“We are informing our members of their legal right to protection to be guided by the science.”
Dr Bousted said this means teachers can be available to work from home and work with vulnerable children and those of key workers, but not to take full, in-person classes from Monday.
She continued: “We will be informing our members that they have the right to work in safe conditions which do not endanger their health.
“We realise that this late notice is a huge inconvenience for parents and for head teachers.
“The fault, however, is of the Government’s own making and is a result of their inability to understand data, their indecisiveness, and their reckless approach to their central duty – to safeguard public health.”
The general secretary of the NASUWT union, Dr Patrick Roach, called for an immediate nationwide move to remote education due to safety concerns.
Dr Roach said: “There is genuine concern that schools and colleges are not able to reopen fully and safely at this time.
“The NASUWT remains of the view that schools, colleges and other settings should only remain open to all pupils where it is safe for them to do so.
“The NASUWT will not hesitate to take appropriate action in order to protect members whose safety is put at risk as a result of the failure of employers or the Government to ensure safe working conditions in schools and colleges.”
Guidance is also expected from the union NAHT, which represents school leaders, regarding the return to work.
In an update to members on Saturday, general secretary Paul Whiteman said: “The Government’s current approach is too simplistic and is damaging education. It is time to properly respond to what professional educators need rather than how attractive a headline may read.
“The Government is alienating the profession, failing children and being reckless with the safety of the whole school community.”
Mr Whiteman also said the union had started preliminary steps in legal proceedings against the Department for Education and is awaiting the Government’s response.
He said: “We have asked the Government to share the evidence justifying distinctions drawn between primary and secondary schools, the geographical distinctions they have made and the evidence justifying the compulsory introduction of mass testing.”
The call to delay the reopening of schools was supported by Unison, as the union’s head of education Jon Richards said: “The Government must end its bitty, piecemeal approach and act decisively by delaying the start of term for all schools by two weeks because of spiralling infection rates.”
The GMB union, which represents school support staff, said it will take action to defend the safety of its members unless the Education Secretary delays the reopening of schools in England.
Sixes and sevens
Stuart Fegan, GMB national officer, said: “Gavin Williamson is at sixes and sevens over the reopening of schools. His shambolic approach is a recipe for chaos and danger. It’s causing huge stress.
“As infection rates rise, we need a consistent approach, not a postcode lottery. The Education Secretary now needs to apply some common sense, make a full U-turn, and delay reopening all schools in England until proper safeguards are in place.
“No-one wants to disrupt any child’s learning but action is needed to protect people and make schools safe.
“This must include ensuring priority vaccination of all support staff in schools – key workers who are all too often forgotten.”