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

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FAQs on the Coronavirus and how to protect yourself working in school
Should I have a risk assessment?
I haven’t seen my school’s risk assessment. What should I do?
What should schools consider when planning school transport services?
I'm from a Black, Asian or other Ethnic Minority background, what support is available for me?
What should I do if I believe my workplace is not safe?
Can I wear a face covering at school?
I’m clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV)/ clinically vulnerable (CV), what help is available for me?
What should I do if I feel PPE is necessary for my role?
What happens if the PPE we have in school runs out?
What should I do in advance of attending work once all pupils are back?
 What are the rules about social distancing in schools?  
How will the school run once all pupils are back in school?
I have an underlying health condition, and too frightened to go in to work, what should I do?   
I don’t feel it is safe for my school to have all pupils yet and I am afraid to go to work. What should I do?  
What if my school threatens my job if I don’t come in as directed?
What if my school threatens to stop my pay if I don’t return to work because I feel it is unsafe?   
I have to take public transport to get to work and social distancing is just not happening.  
What should we do about heating systems and ventilation in schools?
I am back in work and with the increased number of pupils it feels unsafe. What should I do?
How can I avoid physical contact with young children?
Is social distancing practical in schools?
What about social contact during breaks?
How can we possibly avoid child to child physical contact?
What do we do if a child appears unwell?
How can I minimise the chance of taking the virus home?
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FAQs on the Coronavirus and how to protect yourself working in school

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 in September.

GMB has been clear throughout the pandemic that we want to see schools fully open as soon as possible, but the safety of staff, pupils, parents, and wider communities must come first.

In July the government issued its guidance for schools on planning for a full return of pupils in England at the beginning of the autumn term.

GMB believes the guidance is not good enough. We’ve said that safe systems of work need to be in place; that test and trace must improve; that schools need time to implement full risk assessments; that we need more cleaners working throughout the day; that teaching assistants mustn’t become substitute teachers; that high risk staff need to be safe; and that to achieve all of these things schools need more funding.

We realise what an unsettling time this is for our schools-based members, and GMB are here to support you through this. You will have many questions to ask and many fears to contend with.

For schools to open fully safely there must be safe systems in place   which address a range of issues including risk assessments, PPE, testing, tracing, isolation and social distancing.

Whilst many schools have implemented safe systems in advance of schools opening in September, we do not believe that the government has delivered on all of these vital safety measures. 

GMB have updated our FAQs to reflect the questions and concerns you are raising right now.

Should I have a risk assessment?

Employers must protect people from harm in the workplace. This includes taking reasonable steps to protect staff, pupils, and others from coronavirus (COVID-19) within schools. A risk assessment is a process to identify, assess, mitigate against and where possible remove potential hazards. School employers have a legal duty to conduct risk assessments to identify the measures needed to reduce the risks from coronavirus (COVID-19) so far as is reasonably practicable and make the school ‘COVID-secure’. 

All risk assessments should be periodically updated, including as and when local and or individual circumstances change. Your school has a legal requirement to update the risk assessment to include additional/revised control measures needed for a full return to school in September and to consult with trade unions.

GMB believes that schools should undertake an individual risk assessment for any staff member who requires one, and this should consider personal circumstances including risks to those they live with. Department for Education guidance does not mention schools carrying out individual risk assessments for vulnerable school staff and fails to recognise that many staff will have compound risks that increase their vulnerability to Covid-19. GMB believes the DfE guidance for schools on carrying out risk assessments is inadequate.

The joint unions have produced helpful advice on carrying out risk assessments in a school setting, which you can send to your school to aid them in their planning. You can also contact your local GMB rep or branch for further information and support.  

I haven’t seen my school’s risk assessment. What should I do?

Your employer has a legal obligation to carry out a risk assessment. If this has not been discussed with you prior to your school opening in September, you should speak to your head teacher and request that a risk assessment is done before you return to work. Contact your GMB branch immediately if you are required to work without a risk assessment being carried out.   A collective group risk assessment will not always be sufficient in identifying individual risks you may have, if you believe you or someone you live with are more at risk then you may need an individual risk assessment. More information on risk assessments can be found in the GMB Coronavirus hub here.

What should schools consider when planning school transport services?

DfE guidance states that schools must consider safety arrangements including the following when planning school transport services from September:

  • how pupils are grouped together on transport, where possible this should reflect the bubbles that are adopted within school  
  • hand sanitiser is to be available  
  • additional cleaning of vehicles  
  • organised queuing and boarding where possible  
  • distancing within vehicles wherever possible  
  • good ventilation such as keeping windows open
  • seating arrangements eg allocation of specific seating
  • the use of face coverings for children (except those under the age of 11), where appropriate, for example, if they are likely to come into very close contact with people outside of their group
  • staff should also be allowed to wear masks or face coverings if they wish to do so  

The above applies to coaches and minibuses picking up pupils, including pupils with SEND. Sufficient transport must be made available to avoid any overcrowding and allow safer travelling for staff and pupils.

I'm from a Black, Asian or other Ethnic Minority background, what support is available for me?

GMB has developed tools to help you access an Individual Risk Assessment, which you can find here. We are also asking you to tell us about your experience of Covid-19, which you can do here. By taking the survey, you'll be helping us build evidence and put pressure on the government to do more to protect ethnic minority workers. The survey closes Tuesday 8th September.

What should I do if I believe my workplace is not safe?

Your employer has a duty to put in place measures to protect the health and safety of all employees and pupils in your school. Your employer should carry out a risk assessment that will identify possible dangers and risks to you while at work (see the section in FAQs on risk assessments). Where a person has additional risks, GMB says they should have an individual risk assessment. Recommendations from the risk assessment should be immediately implemented. However, if you still feel the workplace is not safe for you following a risk assessment, or if your employer has failed to carry out or consult you on a risk assessment, then you should urgently contact your local GMB rep or branch.

Staff faced with a dangerous working environment have rights under employment law, if they reasonably believe there is a risk of being exposed to serious and imminent danger and you leave your place of work in response to such a risk then you should not suffer any detriment for taking such action nor should your employment be terminated by your employer in response to your actions ( in line with sections 100 and 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996) but the application of these legal rights to the risk from Covid are untested. If you believe there is such a risk you should contact GMB immediately and always before removing yourself from the workplace.

Can I wear a face covering at school?

GMB believes that staff should be allowed to wear face coverings if they wish to do so. The government’s advice on face coverings is constantly changing and has recently been updated to include the following advice: ‘Face coverings are required at all times on public transport (except children under the age of 11), when attending a hospital as a visitor or outpatient, or when in a shop or a supermarket.’ 

Despite challenges by the GMB the DfE do not recommend the use of face coverings in schools.

However, the Health and Safety Executive has stated that employers should support employees who wish to wear face coverings. It is important that face coverings are used in addition to other protective measures and that wearing them does not lead to the relaxation of social distancing and regular hand washing, etc. These practices should be adhered to at all times. 

Face coverings may provide extra protection but are not classed as PPE (Personal Protective Equipment).  If a risk assessment identifies that PPE is required, then the correct British Standard face masks for the task should be provided. The employer must source and provide these and put in place training on its correct use.

 If you wish to wear a face covering and your employer is refusing to allow you to, please draw their attention to the HSE advice. If your employer still refuses, urgently contact your GMB rep for advice and support.

I’m clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV)/ clinically vulnerable (CV), what help is available for me?

While the government has acknowledged that a wider group of people continues to be more clinically vulnerable than the rest of the population, the Department for Education expects that most staff will go back to their school from September.

GMB is concerned that social distancing in schools will realistically be very difficult and very little PPE will be provided. As a result, schools will have fewer protective measures in place to reduce the risk of the spread of COVID-19 than most other workplaces.

GMB, along with the joint unions, continue to believe that staff should only attend the workplace when it is sufficiently safe for them as individuals to do so.

Please read the detailed advice we have produced for vulnerable employees. This sets out our specific advice for each group so covers staff who are Clinically Vulnerable and Clinically Extremely Vulnerable. There is also a model letter for you to send to your employer should you need it. You can find this advice here.

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 once all pupils are back?

Prior to returning once schools are fully open 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 all 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 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 all 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. . GMB will supporting members and 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. 

What should we do about heating systems and ventilation in schools?

Windows should be kept open at all possible times to aid ventilation, and where possible, doors too. Air conditioning should only be used if it has been assessed and deemed safe. Mechanical ventilation systems should be assessed, as they should have their air recirculation switched off or set to as low a level as possible. This is because systems which extract air from outside, heat it then send it into the school are generally lower risk than systems which take air from inside and recirculate it. Systems which recirculate air from inside should be turned off or the settings changed so that they draw air in from outside.  

Where there are uncertainties or concerns about safety HSE guidance recommends speaking to a Heating engineer. 

I am back in work and with the increased number of pupils 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 to aid ventilation.
  • 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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