Unions representing tens of thousands of college staff have set out five “tests” they believe should be met before students return on 1 June.

In a joint statement, the University and College Union, GMB, National Education Union, UNISON and Unite said staff and student “safety” must be “guaranteed” before colleges open more widely.

They called for “stringent hygiene measures, protection for vulnerable people and isolation for all suspected cases” to avoid colleges becoming Covid-19 “hotspots”.

The unions are advising staff and students who can work from home to “continue to do so”.

It comes after the government announced on Monday that for learners in year 10 and 12 due to take “key exams” next year, “we are asking schools and colleges to supplement remote education with some face to face support for these year groups from 1 June”.

The Department for Education later confirmed to FE Week that this applied to first year students on all two-year 16 to 19 vocational study programmes, such as BTECs, as well as GCSE and A-level learners.

Guidance published alongside Monday’s announcement included a range of “protective measures” to ensure education settings remain safe places, including reducing class sizes, staggered break times, as well as increasing the frequency of cleaning and reducing the use of shared items.

The unions’ five tests for government and colleges in full are :

  1. Much lower numbers of Covid-19 cases

The new case count must be much lower than it is now, with a sustained downward trend and confidence that new cases are known and counted promptly. And the government must have extensive, open and transparent arrangements in place for testing, contact tracing and isolating those with Covid-19 symptoms.

  1. A national plan for social distancing

The government must have a national plan in place which includes parameters for both appropriate physical distancing and safe levels of social mixing in all further education settings. To help ensure physical distancing during travel and at colleges, all staff and students who can work and study from home must continue to do so.

  1. Comprehensive testing

Comprehensive access to regular testing for students and staff, with isolation for all suspected cases, to ensure colleges don’t become hotspots for Covid-19. In addition to routine testing, protocols to be in place to ensure testing across whole college sites and other non-college work-based learning sites whenever a confirmed case of Covid-19 occurs. 

  1. A whole college strategy for health and safety

Risk assessments and safe ways of working for all tasks and spaces within a college should be established with relevant staff and unions in advance. This should include regular deep cleaning and stringent hygiene measures. Where PPE is identified as required by risk assessments, supplies of these are secured before re-opening of affected areas. Strategy to be clearly communicated to all stakeholders.

  1. Protection for the vulnerable

Vulnerable staff, and staff who live with vulnerable people, must work from home, fulfilling their professional duties to the extent that is possible. Plans must specifically address the protection of all staff, students and members of their households who are vulnerable to Covid-19.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “Staff and student health is the number one priority and nobody should be going back to college until it is safe to do so. The government needs to work with us to address the national challenges, while individual colleges should work with their local union reps to address the unique challenges they will face.”

National Education Union joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted added: “Safety has to be the overriding concern. Planning for wider reopening should focus on ensuring safety is assured if and when the college reopens, not on meeting government deadlines which may well prove unrealistic.”

FE Week has asked the unions to define what “safe” would look like and how that could be “guaranteed”.

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