Dear Deputy Wickenden, As Education Minister you are ultimately responsible (along with Senator Le Fondré, as Chief Minister and Chairman of SEB) for the welfare of our members, who are working tirelessly in our schools and colleges in Jersey, to protect and educate our children under increasingly challenging and difficult circumstances, as we experience yet again, a rapid increase of positive cases of covid-19 across our schools in every age group.
We are increasingly concerned that the recent changes in policy to axe PCR tests for ‘Direct Contacts’ substantially increases the risks to pupils and staff.
We have seen cases of covid-19 reach almost 90 cases for staff this term alone, putting immense pressure on those staff left. They are expected to work in under a ‘business-as-usual’ model despite attendance in both primary (91%) and secondary schools (84%) falling below normal levels, with staff absences increasing too.
PCR testing was once required on day 0, day 5 and day 10, providing a rigorous and reliable mechanism for detecting new cases with the testing being done outside of school (thereby not adding to the school leader’s workload). Reducing PCR testing to only symptomatic cases, and excluding Direct Contacts, severely diminishes this once rigorous approach even further. The reliance on self-administered LFTs may be cost-effective but does not offer the same protection that teachers and pupils once benefited from, as is evident by the significant and increasing number of cases recorded in our schools this half-term.
Our members are increasingly concerned and angry that you, and your officers at the Education Department, are unable to provide adequate mitigations that protect staff sufficiently in what is a period of huge uncertainty. This is particularly concerning as this happened last Christmas in 2020, and again in July 2021, and a significant number of teachers have called again for a return to face coverings (masks/visors) to be reintroduced in the classroom in our schools.
There is inadequate ventilation in most school settings, with little or no provision for CO2 monitors being made available in the classroom, and teachers are working with large groups of pupils at a time where cases are rising fastest in these age groups. The removal of ‘tracking and tracing’ of Direct Contacts has created a huge swell of anger and frustration, leaving staff even more vulnerable between now and the end of term.
We would ask that you urgently consider the following matters to address staff concerns:
The re-introduction of PCR testing for all Direct Contacts and the use of LFTs in schools so that additional positive cases are identified at the earliest possible opportunity.
The re-introduction of face-masks in classrooms to protect our pupils and staff.
The reduction or cancelling of all non-essential face-to-face meetings until the end of the Autumn Term, or until cases reduce significantly in schools in the Spring Term.
The immediate removal of all non-essential activities, in order to reduce staff workload to more manageable levels, given the additional workload created by rising cases, rising staff absences and staff having to support pupils working at home at this time, e.g. clubs, assemblies etc.
Given that a new covid variant has been found in southern Africa, which has reached as far as England already, and which is of increasing concern to the World Health Organisation (WHO), leading to increased mitigations and rules being tightened in England around self-isolation and the use of face-masks, it would seem prudent that Jersey do everything possible to protect staff and pupils in our schools. Please ‘put children first’ by ensuring that staff are protected and able to confidently provide a high-quality service to our pupils in the next three weeks and in the new year.
We have had anecdotal evidence from members, raising serious health and safety concerns, that a small minority of pupils are currently attending schools even when they appear ‘symptomatic’ since the rules for schools were changed. The reliance on parents and pupils to complete LFTs at home, at very short notice, without the added reassurance of a PCR test for Direct Contacts, has significantly increased the risks for vulnerable pupils and staff in our schools.
Our members have contacted their school reps and the NEU Jersey District Committee to express their feelings and some staff have reported feeling that they have been ‘thrown under the bus’ by you, the Education Minister, and the Council of Ministers. Schools should be able to concentrate on what they do best – educating the children of the island – and not having to risk assess their classrooms daily, due to the recent changes set out by you and the government.
There are many staff under the age of 40, who are not yet eligible for the booster vaccine, at an increased risk of infection at this time. The roll-out of the covid-19 Vaccination Programme in schools and colleges has been welcomed, but unfortunately, it appears to be too little and too late to solve the current crisis in our schools.
We would appreciate your immediate attention, and response to the issues raised in this letter, which mirrors the concerns raised by Dr. Patrick Roach, General Secretary of the NASUWT.