Letter regarding our concerns on schools reopening
Reform Jersey's Education spokesperson, Deputy Rob Ward, has written to government ministers to voice our concerns on the plans for all students to return to schools on Monday.
Chief Minister, Ministers and Assistant Ministers,
I am writing to you on behalf of Reform Jersey and not in my role as scrutiny chair. I would like to be clear at the outset that this is not a criticism of the work being undertaken by public services. This is a comment on the political decisions that are being made.
We would like to formally voice our serious concerns regarding returning all students to schools and college on 11th January 2021. There are a number of reasons behind this issue that I will detail below.
The return to school of all students at a time when we are unsure as to the presence or not of the new strain of the virus is irresponsible. It is clear that this new strain has created genuine problems for countries where it has spread. The UK being the most obvious. Can we really be certain that we are not creating the perfect breeding ground for the spread of this new version of the virus? Thus taking a virus that appears to be up to 70% more transmissible back home.
Safety in Schools
It is clear that schools and colleges have undertaken huge amounts of work to create safer environments for students regarding the virus. However, we do not see how groups of up to 30 students, bubbles of up to 200, in crowded and ill ventilated classrooms can be a suitable situation for staff, and for students to safely return home without being vectors of the virus for their families.
We are disappointed that the review of health and safety measures happened when schools and colleges were empty of students. The reality of up to 1000 students moving around a building is a very different scenario to empty corridors, classrooms and canteens.
Testing in schools
It is clear that the prior testing of students will only cover a small percentage of the overall school and college population. This is a useful step but far from a solution to the possible problems they face. Indeed, in yesterday's briefing the Director General of CYPES referred to this as a “surveillance” system. By definition this is reactive and not a preventative or protective measure.
We also have concerns over the uptake of testing. It appears this will be only 50% of those offered a test before students return. At what point do a number of positive tests indicate that the non tested 50% will have similar infection? And what is planned for this scenario?
Finally on testing, we welcome the use of lateral flow tests but have concerns over their accuracy and subsequent value in this scenario of fast moving infection in schools and colleges.
We share the concerns over students not being in school or college. But equally, we have serious concern over the impact that the uncertainty of whether students will become infected in schools and colleges and the impact on their families is having on well being.
We want to make clear that we have serious concerns over the health of teachers and lecturers who have been under constant pressure from the very beginning of the pandemic to balance teaching and their growing roles as providers of well being support for students and families. This constant pressure will take a longer term toll on the profession.
The covid situation has exposed the inadequacies of provision for remote learning in schools and colleges. After the first lockdown we had an opportunity to seriously address this issue. This opportunity has been missed. We urge you to prioritise the provision of affordable broadband for families who require it plus the provision of It equipment. This must be seen as an investment similar to that provided for business via the furlow scheme. This long term investment in our children will pay dividends now and into the future. It will also give genuine opportunity for quality online learning and the opportunity for phased returns or blended learning.
We do not understand why teachers and lecturers are not being treated as health workers and those in social services given the scenario they find themselves having to work within. This will start protection of a crucial workforce and could mean that immunity is developed within 3 weeks to a reasonable level. We also ask you to consider that as we do not have expertise here, we are having to follow what the UK vaccination authority is recommending. That might be appropriate in a larger country where the strategy is about protecting the vulnerable, but in Jersey we could choose a different strategy aimed at a timely application of this principle whilst protecting key work groups in order to open our public services.
Possible ways forward
We would recommend the following approach to schools and colleges in the current situation:
The stay at home from school and college is extended for another 2 weeks initially in order that any increase in cases from Christmas and New Year can be seen. During this time schools and colleges will deliver online learning to students.
Provision for vulnerable and those of critical staff needs to be provided as previously.
As a matter of urgency we must know whether we have the new strain of the virus and act accordingly.
An urgent vaccination programme for school and college staff is undertaken. Primary school staff being first for this facility.
This time is used by CYPES to extend the provision of online learning tools and equipment for families needing help. This must be funded as a matter of urgency
During the 2 week period, school and college staff must be able to plan for a phased return using social distancing and treating schools and colleges as workplaces until vaccination is complete or we are certain we have contained the spread. Ongoing in school testing can be used as planned to support this. This will require a rota of year groups attending to maintain social distancing.
A clear plan for phased return to schools and colleges needs to be produced. With the initial target of primary back after 2 weeks with staff vaccinated. Then a phased return of secondary schools and colleges which reflects the “reconnection” process outlined. Any delays due to changes in circumstance must be reflected in school returns. This must happen with direct consultation with teaching and support staff to give ownership of the processes agreed. This is lacking from current arrangements.
All of these suggestions are about enabling a longer term return to normality without the ad hoc absence from schools and colleges for some. The difference we have from the last lockdown is the availability of a vaccine that offers genuine protection. Short term inconvenience will enable greater long term certainty.
Finally, we want to express the concerns we have received from the teaching profession over how their treatment has been perceived. Many teachers and lecturers feel they have been thrown into the front line with scant regard to their long term well being. This needs to be addressed and trust rebuilt in the coming weeks and months.
Deputy Rob Ward
On behalf of Reform Jersey.