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The Tories decision to keep schools & universities open is a clear political choice – Labour must oppose it. #Covid19 #ZeroCovid

“Labour’s leadership must join the Socialist Campaign Group in calling for a zero-Covid approach – crucial to this is supporting the UCU & NEU by calling for the closure of schools, colleges & universities.”

Amy Smith, Halifax CLP

By Amy Smith, Halifax CLP.

England has entered its second national lockdown but schools, colleges, and universities remain open. This short-sighted move means that it will not be possible to quickly subdue the second wave. The lockdown cannot be effective if thousands of pupils, students, and staff continue to meet in classrooms, risking contracting the virus, and then return home where they may pass Covid-19 to their family or flatmates.

The decision to keep schools and universities open is a clear political choice made by the UK Government. Whilst they project the appearance of decisive action through the partial lockdown measures, the maintenance of face-to-face teaching continues their policy of herd immunity. Labour’s leadership must oppose this decision from the Tories.

More broadly, Labour should join the Socialist Campaign Group in calling for a zero-Covid approach. Crucial to this is supporting the University and Colleges Union (UCU) and the National Education Union (NEU) by calling for the closure of schools, colleges, and universities.

The National Union of Students is also calling for the Government to rethink its approach to HE institutions, particularly in the light of some more extreme measures put in place by universities. This was epitomized this week by the erection of fences around Fallowfield Hall at the University of Manchester, apparently to stop students mixing with those from other households. This was a cynical and patronising manoeuvre that builds on the false narrative that irresponsible students are entirely to blame for rising case numbers.

Student protestors pulled down the Fallowfield fence and the University has apologised for its action, but the NUS president, Larissa Kennedy, has told The Guardian that students had been “policed, threatened and blamed to appalling levels” throughout the pandemic. Universities, absolving themselves of blame, will not take necessary action and we must campaign for the mandated closure of educational establishments to ensure the protection of all students and staff. 

Universities claim that students are clamouring en masse for face-to-face teaching to reduce the mental health issues and stress caused by the isolation of online teaching. This is premised on a model where students are working from their halls of residence. The forced lockdowns in student residences have been extremely harmful to students’ mental health. Yet if the majority of students are allowed to travel home and finish this academic year remotely then much of these negative effects can be mitigated.

Online teaching is the simplest way to reduce the spread on campuses. The NUS and individual student groups around the UK support this approach to protect themselves and their peers. In September 2020, epidemiological modelling using data from the University of Bristol, found that cutting face-to-face teaching, alongside increased social distancing, lowered infection rates by 75%.

On this basis, UCU and NEU continue to campaign hard for schools and universities to be included in the lockdown. According to the NEU, “It is clear from ONS data that schools are an engine for virus transmission.” The SAGE group of advisors have also confirmed that transmission in secondary schools is “high”, with the ONS calculating that it is 50 times higher than in September. The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, has been extremely quiet on this subject. Instead Keir Starmer has been making the case for keeping schools open. This is a failure of policy by the party. Labour should be listening to the scientific advice and to the guidance from unions, which clearly shows the need for closures. Instead, the leadership is again failing to provide robust opposition in a time of national crisis.

SAGE has also advised the Government that universities and colleges should close and move to online teaching. The Government has ignored this advice and Michelle Donlan, the Minister of State for Universities, has recently advised universities against a complete move to online teaching. In response, UCU has launched a legal challenge to find out why and to pressure the Government to mandate changes to teaching delivery. These actions will be necessary to stop later outbreaks of the virus, for example in January when the academic year resumes.

It is the Left’s duty to get behind the unions’ campaigns and push for schools, colleges, and universities to be included in the lockdown. Without these closures, cases cannot fall quickly enough, more people will die, and the country will continue to suffer the economic uncertainty of further local lockdowns and partial closures well into 2021.

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