Schools cannot re-open as they were last term, let alone as they were before Covid, until all staff are vaccinated, a teaching union leader warned today.
Talks on how schools can re-open safely, and when, are ongoing with the Welsh Government, local authorities and unions.
One of the key issues is whether staff should be prioritised for the coronavirus vaccine after the elderly, vulnerable, health and care workers.
Welsh Government minister Kirsty Williams reiterated in the Senedd on Thursday that she would follow the guidance from the UK-wide JCVI body which is determining the priority groups for the vaccine.
“I fully stand behind the work of the JCVI in how it has identified who is most at risk of serious harm or death as a result of contracting Covid-19,” Ms Williams told the Senedd.
“Members of staff, both in school and those that support education in other roles, will receive their vaccination in line with their relative risk of harm.”
Unions and individual headteachers in Wales have called for staff to be prioritised but this is the first time a union official has publicly stated schools can’t open without that.
Neil Butler, Nasuwt National Official Wales, said staff must be vaccinated in the next priority group for schools to re-open.
He stressed that he recognised many public workers, and others, are asking to be prioritised next, and it was not a matter of school staff being special, but having schools closed is having a major impact on society.
Vaccinating teachers, and other staff, is the only way to get education open and running again which would help working parents, the economy and mental health, he said.
Discussions on how to re-open schools will only revolve around how to close them again, until staff get the vaccine, the union official said.
“Why should someone like me, in their mid-50s, working from home, be prioritised over a younger teacher coming into contact, potentially, with hundreds of children a day?,” said Mr Butler.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advises UK health departments on immunisation. Education Minister Kirsty Williams has said Wales will follow its advice – which so far is not to prioritise school staff.
Special school staff, who provide intimate care, were added to the care worker list to be prioritised last Friday, after representations, but not other school staff. Unions are continuing to press Ms Williams and Health Minister Vaughan Gething on the matter.
Mr Butler said it was unfair on children to have schools opening and shutting as they have. Uncertainty about how the pandemic will pan out means that is very likely until staff are vaccinated.
“Schools could be shut on and off until the end of the academic year without vaccinations for staff,” he warned.
“You don’t have large numbers of teachers dying, so they say people in their mid-50s, often working from home, will get the vaccine before teachers.
“Welsh Government, and we, desperately want schools to be open and the vaccine is the way to do that.
“If all staff were vaccinated schools could re-open with the Covid precautions we had in place last term.
“If schools re-open after half term, as they did last term, they will be out again. Pupils will be in and out again for months.”
He said this disruption was unfair and damaging to young people. An “ethical debate” was needed about how the vaccine saves lives as well as how it can be prioritised to get life running again.
“My heart goes out to the children. School is not just about education, it is the whole life experience, socialising and the community.
“There is an ethical debate here to be had about the science around the vaccine and how it should be prioritised.
“Prioritising school staff would mean keeping schools open, which would help the economy and stop teachers potentially taking Covid into the community beyond school.
“It is appalling that schools are shut. This cannot still be happening next year. We cannot let that happen.”
Other education unions and individual headteachers have said staff should be vaccinated, but have stressed it’s not a “deal breaker” in terms of schools re-opening. Mr Butler said it should be, or the “unfair hokey cokey” of classrooms opening and closing would continue. With many school staff in their twenties, thirties and forties, that could be a very long time indeed, unless they are prioritised on grounds of their profession.
The priority list for the Covid-19 vaccine is as follows:
- Residents in a care home for older adults and their carers
- All those aged 80 and over. Frontline health and social care workers
- All those aged 75 and over
- All those aged 70 and over. Clinically extremely vulnerable individuals
- All those aged 65 and over
- All individuals aged 16-64 with underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk of serious disease and mortality
- All those aged 60 and over
- All those aged 55 and over
- All those aged 50 and over