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NASUWT calls on Govt to address its concerns over plans to reopen schools

Johnny Bugeja

Teachers’ union NASUWT has raised safety concerns over plans to reopen schools in September following the Covid-19 lockdown

The statement follows an interview by the Chronicle with the Minister of Education Gilbert Licudi and the Director of Education Jacqueline Mason on the reopening of all local schools next month.

Mr Licudi and Ms Mason confirmed all schools would be opening and all students expected to make a full return, adding that measures would be introduced to avoid large congregations.

Measures include staggered entry, exit, break and lunch times to avoid congregations, and the introduction of a “classroom bubble”.

But the union said it had been asking for information from the Department of Education for several weeks regarding the health and safety of staff and students, adding “none has been forthcoming.”

NASUWT said it was “disappointed” this information was released to the general public via the media rather prior to consultation with the union, “especially on such a delicate and important matter.”

It called for further information on the new measures to avoid large groups, and on how teachers and students will be safeguarded particularly in the secondary sector, where “classroom bubbles” are “almost impossible” to keep.

NASUWT also asked how ‘bubbles’ would be maintained when students have to move between Bayside, Westside and the Gibraltar College of Further Education.

“It should be noted that most teachers in the secondary sector are exposed to around 200 students on a weekly basis,” the union said.

The union also questioned whether there would be a change to working hours due to staggering entry/exit times, breaks and lunches, and how the classroom bubble could be maintained in the case of supply teachers and support staff.

The union has also asked the Department of Education about cleaning provisions in the schools, the possibility of a teacher or student testing positive for Covid-19, regular testing of teachers, and whether a student is obligated to tell the school they have tested positive.

“These are some of our most immediate concerns as a result of the article,” the union said in a statement.

“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 union added the Department of Education has so far offered “no real answer” as to what would happen if a school 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,” the union said.

“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.”

GOVT REACTS

In reply to the statement, the Gibraltar Government said the announcement that schools would reopen in September had been made in Parliament last July.

The announcement was reported in the media at the time and the Government said NASUWT should therefore have known about this before the interview with Mr Licudi was published this week in this newspaper.

“It is also incorrect that NASUWT have not had a reply to their letter to the Director of Education,” the Government added in a statement.

“The Director responded on the same day that she received the letter and said that she would revert to them adding ‘please rest assured that children’s and staff health and safety is paramount to us and our guidelines for September will be focused on this’.”

“The Department of Education is working on a guidance document and this will be shared with NASUWT in exactly the same way that such a document was shared with them before schools reopened on 26 May.”

GSD WELCOMES ANNOUNCEMENT, URGES PARTNERSHIP

The GSD welcomed the announcement of the reopening of the schools this September, but said this should be done in partnership with teachers.

The party said it was surprised that the teachers’ union NASUWT said it had been seeking information for some time but had not been consulted on the announcement.

“It goes without saying that the reopening of schools or dealing with the impact of Covid-19 cannot be done properly without the involvement of teachers, the Union and full information to parents and students,” the GSD said.

The GSD added there needs to be full involvement of teachers in the planning for a partial or complete closure of a school in the case of a second lockdown.

“The Government needs to plan for these contingencies now that they are foreseeable possibilities,” the GSD said.

“This must not only cover the public health needs but also ensure the roll-out of emergency online learning to students of a quality commensurate with the teaching they would be missing.”

“When the pandemic struck earlier this year it was understandable that teaching authorities were caught unawares worldwide and that provision of substitute learning was patchy.”

“But the Government will now have had a full six months of planning so in the event of a future partial or complete closure of a school our students should not suffer and be provided with equivalent learning delivered online by teachers.”