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Coronavirus (COVID-19): schools in England update and FAQs

FAQs on the Coronavirus and how to protect yourself working in school

Update: Thursday 04 June 2020

We've added some guidance on PPE stocks and what to do if your role needs PPE.

Update: Friday 29 May 2020

Click on the titles below to expand the section

For our general members' advice on coronavirus - what it is and what you should know - click here

GMB understands that this is a really anxious time for school staff in England and many of you will be unsure of where you stand with regards to returning to work with a wider group of children in school from June 1st. 

We have been clear that we are willing to work with government on the issue of schools opening to more pupils. However, we firmly believe schools should only increase numbers when it has safe systems in place for pupils, parents, staff and the wider community.

Any plans need to address a range of issues including risk assessments, PPE, testing, tracing, isolation and social distancing.

To date, we do not believe that the government has delivered on all of these vital safety measures.  

What should I do if I feel PPE is necessary for my role?

You need to put this in writing stating the reasons for requiring the provision. The use of PPE should be picked up in the risk assessment process. The request would need to be made on grounds of either having an underlying health condition, or that the specific nature of the work made a mask necessary (such as close quarters working in the role for first aid/provision of medication/support for pupils with additional needs/support for pupils requiring restraint techniques/support for pupils known to spit/known for violence; cleaning etc). It won't be enough to request one just because of the general Covid pandemic - there has to be a specific risk identified.  

If the employer still refuses to provide one then you need to raise a  grievance - primarily an individual one, but potentially collective grievance if all staff performing the work (such as cleaning or intimate care) are denied one. Talk to your GMB rep to discuss this.

What happens if the PPE we have in school runs out?

It is not acceptable to expect you to continue working without adequate safety provision. Put your point in writing as in the above question, reminding your employer of the reasons you need it. Again, talk to your GMB rep for support.

What should I do in advance of attending work with a wider group of pupils? 


Prior to more pupils returning if you have not already done so, ask for a risk assessment (use template letter to heads)- notify your rep/branch/officer if it is not received prior to a return to work. Everyone has the right to feel safe at work.    

You should be provided with the findings of the risk assessment are – what the key risks of Covid 19 transmissions are, and how they will be controlled. The school should be telling you what actions they will be taking; what training you will receive on new ways of working before the school reopens; and the information you need to make sure you clearly understand how to work safely once the school is reopened.    

If this information hasn’t been provided, is inadequate or is incomplete, then you should inform GMB and immediately contact your school to raise the issue.   

 What are the rules about social distancing in schools?  


One important point to bear in mind, particularly for younger pupils, is that the UK Government have been clear in their guidance that social distancing will not be possible in schools.

As a result, school leaders will not be able to include social distancing as a way of controlling Covid 19 risk from pupils; it will still be necessary in staff rooms, reception areas and any other situations involving adults only. Where a high risk of transmission remains, GMB believes other measures such as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) will be needed.  

How will the school run once more pupils are back in school?


Make sure you are clear on what is expected of you; how any changes to ways of working will affect you; and that training is being provided where there are new processes or procedures to follow. If you have any concerns, raise them as soon as you can. 

All teaching assistants should still be working to their contracted role and under the supervision of a qualified teacher. If you are not satisfied with the response, contact your GMB rep immediately for support.    

 I’m a vulnerable worker in the shielding group, what should I do?  


No-one in the shielding group of extremely vulnerable workers (I.e. who has received a letter confirming this status) should return to work or attempt to do so. All workers in the shielding category must not leave home until otherwise formally notified that it is safe to do so, either by the NHS or the Government. 

I have an underlying health condition, and too frightened to go in to work, what should I do?   


If you have other underlying health conditions, you should have a risk assessment specific to you and the work that you do. This must be performed before any return to work and involve Occupational Health or other medical professionals where this is needed.    

The assessment should consider whether you can perform your job role at home (on normal pay); if not whether you can perform other work from home. If neither is possible, then an assessment should consider whether you can perform your work duties, or other work, in the school but segregated away from areas of high risk. If this is not possible, then control measures such as working reduced hours, travelling outside of peak periods, and the provision of PPE should be considered.     

Workers who are classroom teaching assistants should be allocated a specific class “pod”/hub” or “bubble” - a group of no more than 15 pupils who will be the sole class worked with until the end of term. This ‘cohorting’ will further reduce the risk, as transmission will be limited to the smaller group.  If your employer cannot manage risk down to an acceptable level they shouldn’t expect you to be in work.   

I don’t feel it is safe for my school to have more pupils yet and I am afraid to go to work. What should I do?  


It is important to say GMB will support you if you genuinely fear that your workplace is unsafe. Contact your local branch or regional office immediately for support, and advice about lodging a grievance (the formal method to notify your employer of a complaint, in this case that you feel work is unsafe)   

Advise the school in advance explaining why. Don’t just fail to turn up.  Consider what changes need to be made to help you feel safe. 

Talk to other GMB members, do you all feel the same? If they do talk to your branch about a collective grievance. Involve non-members and encourage them to join, for collective strength.   

Talk to teacher colleagues, they may feel the same, in which case the unions should work together (again, involve your branch).   

How could you support the school from home? What can you offer to do from home to demonstrate that you want to work, but only want to return to school as your workplace when it is safe to do so. GMB will support members if they are too frightened to go in to school on safety grounds. 

What if my school threatens my job if I don’t come in as directed?


GMB is aware of a few isolated instances where jobs have been threatened and we will intervene on your behalf straight away it, is important to say GMB will support you if you genuinely fear that your workplace is unsafe.

We are also forwarding such instances to the LGA and the head teacher unions so they can challenge this practice, so please inform your branch immediately if this happens to you. We need to know immediately if your employer says this to you.  Contact your local branch or regional office immediately for support, and advice about lodging a grievance (the formal method to notify your employer of a complaint, in this case that you feel work is unsafe)   

Advise the school in advance explaining why. Don’t just fail to turn up.   

Consider what changes need to be made to help you feel safe.   

Talk to other GMB members, do you all feel the same? If they do talk to your branch about a collective grievance.   

Involve non-members and encourage them to join, for collective strength.   

Talk to teacher colleagues, they may feel the same, in which case the unions should work together (again, involve your branch).   

How could you support the school from home? What can you offer to do from home to demonstrate that you want to work, but only want to return to school as your workplace when it is safe to do so. GMB will support members if they are too frightened to go in to school on safety grounds. 

What if my school threatens to stop my pay if I don’t return to work because I feel it is unsafe?   


Contact your branch immediately for advice and support. The guidance is clear that for some staff it will be unsafe to attend school until the virus has reduced much further and the vast majority of employers are following this guidance. GMB will challenge any employer that withholds pay on these grounds.  

I have to take public transport to get to work and social distancing is just not happening.  


Risk to staff who rely on public transport is increased. Talk to your employer and your rep about this and ensure travel is included in your risk assessment. Consider whether a staggered start/finish could avoid peak times?

It may be that the risk cannot be managed down to an acceptable level and that it is unsafe for you to return until the risks have been reduced further. 

I am back in work with an increased number of pupils and it feels unsafe. What should I do?  


Start logging unsafe practices immediately. If you feel you are in danger, contact your rep immediately, explaining your concerns and giving as much detail as you can.    

 Flag up to school leadership/Union rep as soon as possible, if issues are not resolved escalate them through your branch, Officer, H&S officer to talk about lodging a grievance, a collective grievance, or notifying HSE.  

How can I avoid physical contact with young children?

  • It is important to avoid, so far as is possible, physical contact with children, their families and other personnel.
  • If a child is upset, try and find ways to comfort them which do not involve physical contact.
  • If administering medication or first aid to children, wash your hands before and immediately afterwards and always before moving to another child. Use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) equipment such as masks and gloves where available.
  • Where physical contact is unavoidable wash your hands as soon as you can. If water is not close to where you are working use hand sanitiser.
  • Since some physical contact is inevitable try and avoid touching your face and regularly wash your hands and use hand sanitiser.
  • You can only encourage pupils and this advice is only likely to work if supported by parents and carers at home, so it is important to communicate effectively with families about working practices in school during this time. If individual children are persistently failing to adhere to the guidelines, discuss it with your line manager so that parents can be encouraged to support the process.

Is social distancing practical in schools?

  • There will be times when you are less than the recommended 2m away from others in school, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep this distance wherever possible.
  • Staff should practice social distancing in the staff room.  Remember social distancing when making tea, and always keep 2 metres apart. If this is not possible, you should speak to the Head Teacher to ensure safe working practices are implemented.
  • Introducing markings on the floor is a helpful reminder to maintain the 2m distance.
  • Exercise particular caution in traditional ‘dense environments’ e.g. school transport.
  • Transit type minibuses have, compared with the average classroom environment a small volume of air per person when fully laden i.e. 17 persons in a ‘packed environment’. Space passengers as far apart as possible to maintain a 2m distance between them and if necessary and feasible schools should consider using more vehicles.

What about social contact during breaks?

  • Schools should stagger break and lunch times where possible so that the playground and dining area doesn't become crowded at any time, and also so the staff room is quiet enough to enable social distancing.
  •  Avoid having coffee breaks in groups; making tea/coffee for anyone else; eating lunch in groups; sharing food in the workplace.
  • Keep windows and doors open where possible.
  • Avoid using colleague’s phones or other work tools and equipment. If it is necessary, always clean the equipment before and afterwards.

How can we possibly avoid child to child physical contact?

  • As far as possible, avoid games and activities which lead to physical contact between children.
  • It is recommended to conduct as much activity as possible outside.
  • Spread children out as far as possible when in the classroom and when eating – ideally 3 metres apart, to allow for movement in and out of seats.
  • Encourage children to walk in single file when moving around the school.
  • Make sure that children are not holding hands or touching each other as much as possible and encourage them to keep 2 metres apart. 
  • Encourage children to avoid touching their face.

What do we do if a child appears unwell?

  • Ask your Head for protocol on what to do and where to take a child who is presenting with symptoms.
  • If a child appears unwell the school should isolate them as much as possible immediately and contact their parent /carer as a matter of urgency. Keep the room well ventilated where possible.
  • The adult supervising the child should stay as far away as possible until the child is collected. It is a good idea to have clothes to change in to if you have been supervising a child who is showing symptoms in order to minimise spreading the virus.

How can I minimise the chance of taking the virus home?


Wash your hands and remove shoes as soon as you get home.

Take work clothes off immediately reaching home and launder them, where possible before touching any members of your family.


If you are affected and need further guidance and support please contact GMB at publicservices@gmb.org.uk

 
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