Concern over school re-openings

The entrance to Worcesters Primary School in Goat Lane

Report by Simon Allin, Local Democracy Reporter

Councillors have agreed a cautious approach to school re-openings after hearing concerns over the potential coronavirus risk to staff and pupils – particularly those in vulnerable groups.

Enfield Council’s scrutiny committee resolved to support the local authority “to take whatever action is required in its duty of care to keep the children in the borough, and staff, safe in our schools.”

Schools in Enfield – closed to most children since March because of the Covid-19 pandemic – started opening their doors to more pupils from Monday 1st June in response to government guidance. So far, only some schools have started increasing pupil numbers, but more are planning to do so in the coming weeks. All local authority-run schools have completed risk assessments.

At the scrutiny committee meeting last week, several councillors expressed concerns about the safety of staff and pupils, especially those in higher-risk groups such as black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people.

It came after the Enfield branch of the National Education Union (NEU) claimed the risk assessment for school staff was inappropriate, as it was originally designed for NHS staff working in an environment with better safety measures.

Dr Glenn Stewart, the council’s assistant director of public health, told the committee the evidence was that children “are very bad at getting the virus and passing it on”. He added: “We are talking a very small risk for children.”

Labour councillor Ayfer Orhan highlighted the NEU’s concerns and asked why a more appropriate risk assessment had not been drawn up. Peter Nathan, the council’s director of education, said the assessment was intended to “identify issues related to BAME staff”. He added: “Schools have been using this and there has been such positive feedback from schools, because it has enabled staff to talk to school leaders and openly discuss anxieties about the return to work.”

Dr Stewart said he did not agree that the risk assessment was inappropriate, but Cllr Orhan called for “proper answers” to the NEU’s questions and called for education chiefs to send a full response to the union.

Councillor Susan Erbil, another Labour member, asked: “Can this council guarantee that BAME staff will be risk assessed so that they are treated as high risk but also ensure that BAME staff will not suffer employment repercussions?”

Tony Theodoulou, the council’s executive director of people, said: “All staff have been risk assessed. We have heard from school HR [human resource] teams; what they are encouraging is individual conversations with staff to consider the risks, to find ways of reducing that risk.

“At the moment, the overwhelming majority of issues are being resolved positively. The risk assessment covers ethnicity, but it also covers gender and age.”

At the end of the discussion, Cllr Aramaz proposed the council reconsider the decision to extend the opening of schools.

An amendment supporting the local authority to keep staff and children safe was passed by the committee’s Labour members, with the Conservatives abstaining.

Following the meeting, in NEU Enfield issued a statement criticising the council’s approach to re-opening schools. It said: “Many of our members are still frightened and were not comforted by the rhetoric raised in this meeting.”