Teachers’ Union: No Answers To Health And Safety Concerns Ahead Of September Return

The teachers’ union Gibraltar NASUWT says that it has had no answers to numerous COVID-19 health and safety concerns it has raised with the Director of Education ahead of the planned opening of schools next month.

The union says it is “disappointed” after reading the interview given by the Minister of Education and Director of Education to the Gibraltar Chronicle: Schools prepare for September ‘return to normality’, albeit with new measures published on the 10th August 2020.  

The Union says it has been seeking information from the Department of Education for several weeks now regarding health and safety of staff and students but “none has been forthcoming.”

A statement continued: “On the 27th of July we wrote to the Director of Education seeking documentation or guidance, including risk assessments, regarding the start of the academic year in September 2020. The email was not acknowledged. Alarmed, we contacted our head office at NASUWT and on the 4th August we wrote a formal letter to the Director of Education, which she acknowledged and said she would revert on shortly.  To date, the Union has received no answers to our concerns.”

The letter can be found at the end of this press statement.   

The communiqué continued: “We are extremely disappointed that the Minister of Education and Director of Education have chosen to release information to the general public via the media rather than engaging with and consulting the Teachers’ Union, especially on such a delicate and important matter. This is not the first time this has happened, as the Union learned about the presence of legionella, which led to some schools being closed temporarily just before the end of term in July also via the media.  

“Seeing as the Department of Education does not answer our concerns privately, we are raising some additional concerns as a result of the Gibraltar Chronicle interview and making them public in the hope that they will be raised by the media on our behalf: 

- What new measures will be introduced to avoid large groups? How will the Department safeguard teachers and students in the secondary sector seeing as even the Minister has admitted that it is almost impossible to keep to “classroom bubbles”. What is the Department’s plan of action seeing as secondary students have to move around within parts of the school and even between institutions in the case of consortium subjects taught at the Gibraltar College? It should be noted that most teachers in the secondary sector are exposed to around 200 students on a weekly basis.  

- How can a “classroom bubble” be guaranteed in the primary sector when SENCOs, LSAs, specialist teachers and support staff move around the school, offering support in class as well as interventions on a one-to-one basis in other areas of the school? 

- The article makes reference to staggered entry/exit, breaks and lunches. How will the school day be structured and how will the length of the teaching day for students be affected?  

- Does the Department of Education intend to make changes to the length of the working day for teachers? It should be noted that any change in the working hours and conditions of teachers would require a process of negotiation with Gibraltar NASUWT.  

- What provision has the Department of Education made for supply teachers? In case of a teacher calling in sick and requiring a temporary replacement, how can a classroom bubble be maintained if supply teachers may be required to provide cover in different schools throughout the year? 

- Student toilets are shared with the whole year group in the primary sector and have no restrictions in the secondary sector. What does the Department of Education have planned to ensure surfaces are as clean as possible throughout the day between people using toilets to avoid possible transmission of Covid-19?  

- While classroom bubbles of 20 students sounds good, in practice they are not really bubbles as each child is not isolated before or after the school day and will interact with family, friends and the general public. What is the plan to deal with teachers or students testing positive? What measures does Department of Education have to pre-empt mass contagion?

- Will teachers be tested before resuming school in September? Will there be regular testing after this? How will this be managed during working hours?  

- What provision has been made by the Department if a student or one of their direct relatives in their household tests positive for Covid-19? Are they obliged to inform the school? What powers will be provided to the school to keep track of this.  

“These are some of our most immediate concerns as a result of the article today. We are dismayed that the Department of Education appears to have no desire to engage with or consult the Union on matters of paramount importance for the safety of our members and our community at large. This goes against the spirit of the Social Partnership Agreement signed in 2015 between NASUWT and HM Government of Gibraltar during the Workers’ Day rally.  

“Gibraltar NASUWT will not cease to stand up for the health and safety of its members, of staff and of students in schools in Gibraltar. Our hand will remain outstretched to work alongside the Minister and the Director, but we will not flinch to call them out when we feel they may be cutting corners to fulfil a political agenda. In the absence of robust policies, detailed guidelines and results from risk assessments we must assume that there are none. The interview given to the Gibraltar Chronicle offers no real answer to the question of what happens if a school(s) experiences an outbreak of Covid-19.  

“We understand that parents will be happy that school is resuming in a few weeks’ time and that children will be taught the full curriculum once again. Gibraltar NASUWT and our teacher members are delighted to also resume our duties, but we wish to stay safe just like the rest of our colleagues in the public sector, many of whom will be working arguably under safer conditions thanks to Government counters remaining closed. Therefore, the Union, parents and the general public have a right to know the roadmap the Department of Education has developed to ensure schools remain as safe as possible from September onwards.” 

 ***LETTER TO THE DIRECTOR OF EDUCATION ON 4th AUGUST 2020*** 

Dear Mrs Mason,  

On 8th July 2020, the Government announced its plans to open all schools for curriculum learning in September 2020. However, this announcement has not been followed, to our knowledge, by the publication of the Department of Education’s advice or guidelines to support employees and schools in planning for the opening. Nevertheless, Gibraltar NASUWT understands that schools might be finding the timescale for completing their plans for the September opening very challenging.   

Gibraltar NASUWT is committed to working with employers to ensure the safe opening of schools and other educational settings. An important starting point for Gibraltar NASUWT is that teachers and other school staff have the right to the same considerations and protections in the workplace that are being applied to other workers in the public sector and to the public at large, and to be confident that their health and welfare, as well as that of pupils, is at the heart of any planning for opening. Our expectation is that the Department of Education will ensure that all schools and settings have completed their pre-opening health and safety checks. The NASUWT has produced a pre-opening health and safety checklist, which we hope you will find helpful. It is available at: www.nasuwt.org.uk/fullreopeningEngland.  

The United Kingdom’s Government’s guidance for employers states that: ‘this guidance does not supersede any legal obligations relating to health and safety, employment or equalities and it is important that as a business or an employer you continue to comply with your existing obligations, including relating to those individuals with protected characteristics’ (HM Government, Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19)). In the context where Gibraltar law has always sought to mirror the UKs legal framework as a minimum, Gibraltar NASUWT is confident that the Department for Education will wish to ensure that all schools and settings have:  

- a comprehensive COVID-19 plan for opening, including new risk assessments, which has been the subject of full consultation with all staff and unions, before any pupils are admitted in September;  

- updated their fire risk assessments, in consultation with unions, to take account of the increased risk of having significant amounts of high-alcohol-content hand sanitiser on the premises and compliance with its safe storage requirements. Clear guidance must also be produced for staff to ensure its safe use;  

- secured additional cleaning provision; 

- clear signage to ensure physical distancing, high standards of hygiene practice and safe usage of the premises;  

- conducted individual risk assessments for clinically vulnerable groups, including those who are pregnant, disabled, have underlying health conditions or who are from a BAME background, prior to their full return to the workplace;  

- factored into their plans the safe deployment of supply teachers;  

- provision of counselling support for staff and pupils;  

- procedures in place to ensure that there is compliance with the measures in the risk assessments, and that this compliance is maintained and there is a procedure for dealing immediately with any breaches;  

- a procedure in place to report and address any positive tests among staff and pupils for COVID-19;  

- procedures in place to be able to respond rapidly and effectively to any announcement of a local lockdown.  

Gibraltar NASUWT also expects the Department of Education to remind schools that teachers’ contractual rights with regard to pay and other conditions of service must be respected and adhered to, including when planning, for example, staggered start and finish times. The NASUWT also reiterates the position it has stated previously: that we are putting employers and Governments on notice, by reserving our members’ legal rights in the context of a tortious claim for breach of duty of care and personal injury due to foreseeable risk, and any other legal recourse available.  

You will wish to note that in the UK the NASUWT considers an employer to be in breach of our members’ legal rights under Section 44 and 100 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, if they are subjected to detriment and/or dismissal in circumstances of danger which our members have reasonable belief to be serious and imminent. NASUWT members' rights under sections 47B and 103A of the Employment Rights Act [protected disclosure for the purposes of whistleblowing], including their rights under the Equality Act, are also reserved.  Whilst this legislation is UK applicable, the principle applies in relation to any similar Gibraltar Employment and Equalities legislation that exists. 

Gibraltar NASUWT recognises that schools have been placed in a situation where the wrong decision will result in people becoming seriously ill and dying, and will therefore appreciate that there can be no compromise on health and safety. If this means that schools need to delay full opening to all pupils in order to ensure they can complete all necessary planning, consultation and training of staff required to safeguard the health and safety of staff and pupils, then that position must be accepted. 

Gibraltar NASUWT looks forward to working with you to ensure that the health, safety and welfare of staff and pupils are protected in these unprecedented circumstances. 

Yours sincerely,  

The Executive Committee  

Gibraltar NASUWT – The Teachers’ Union.