In Brighton and Hove, Green Councillors are backing a trade union campaign which is calling on the UK Government to keep pupils safe in schools, as well as reiterating calls for a national ventilation plan for schools.
The campaign, entitled ‘Protect Pupils, Protect Education’, focuses on the action needed to stop potential school closures and avert the disruption to education that characterised the early pandemic response. The campaign is being spearheaded by trade unions, including Unison, GMB, Unite, and NASUWT, with today (9 December) being scheduled as a national day of action.
Additional measures to improve ventilation and minimise infection in schools, the Green urge, could help stop further outbreaks. However, the Government has so far failed to respond on this, with the current requirements focused mainly on mask-wearing in corridors and other communal spaces.
With Covid-19 cases continuing to rise in schools, concerns have been raised that school outbreaks will increase the likelihood of onward transmission to other family members and households.
Green councillors have repeatedly campaigned on the issue of stronger measures in schools. Sarah Nield, Green Councillor for Withdean, has again written to ministers, asking for greater support and funding for the installation of ventilators and air purifiers that modelling shows can significantly reduce the chance of Covid-19 spreading in classrooms.
To date, the Government has undertaken only a small trial of air purifiers in 30 schools in Bradford, failing to roll out this measure nationally. This stands in contrast to international comparators such as the city of New York, in which all school classrooms were provided with two air purifiers by the state department of education, and in some European countries, where stronger measures are already in place.
In a response to the Green Party’s lobbying, the Government has confirmed that no plans are in place to improve ventilation or measures in schools, with the Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi MP, replying to Cllr Nield that ‘it is expected that…existing ventilation is sufficient…[and] the case for additional support for settings to maintain good ventilation will be kept under review.’
Backing the union campaign, councillors say further pressure is vital, as school-aged children currently have the highest Covid-19 rate of any age group, with education staff also more likely to test positive for Covid than the general population.
Greens have praised the response of local schools who have continued to work collaboratively to help bring down the pandemic despite huge workloads and extreme pressures.
Councillor Sarah Nield, member of the children, young people and skills committee on Brighton & Hove city council, commented: “I share the outrage of trade unions that in the settings with some of the highest Covid numbers – our schools – that these are still the places where the fewest Government measures are in place to prevent transmission. If we are to stand any chance of keeping pupils in school, to protect their education and avoid the need for school closures, action is essential to help prevent the spread of Covid in our classrooms. This should be a priority of government.
“Scientists are clear on how the virus spreads – it is airborne – and so we have the knowledge to fight it in schools. After years of cuts to school budgets, and the horrendous impact of Covid on children’s education, their families and school staff, schools need to be given the funding to upgrade their ventilation and to filter their air. Being told by the Government to open the windows all year round is not a real or sustainable solution, particularly in the depths of winter.
“We share the challenge to the Government of the Protect Pupils, Protect Education campaign as it’s essential ministers do all they can to prevent avoidable disruption to education. There are steps that can still be taken – and that we will continue to lobby ministers about. Covid-19 case numbers are once again rising in Brighton and Hove, and now we also have the uncertainties of a new Covid variant to contend with. We urge everyone to add their voice to this vital campaign."