Council chiefs have spent more than £750,000 on equipment to stop the spread of Covid-19 in Aberdeen’s schools, the Evening Express can reveal.
New figures obtained using Freedom of Information legislation show Aberdeen City Council spent £758,769 on protective equipment to be used in schools across the local authority between March last year and January 14 this year.
The figures were revealed as pupils in P1-3 returned to the classroom on Monday – the first stage of plans to get youngsters back to school.
Since the pandemic began early last year, council officials have spent more than three-quarters-of-a-million pounds in a bid to make schools safe.
By far the largest amount was spent on masks, costing a total of £265,446.
Wipes and sanitiser were also among the more costly items, with the council spending £144,057 and £110,716 on each.
Other items purchased include gloves, aprons, blue roll and protective glasses.
City councillor Martin Greig, the Liberal Democrat group’s education spokesman, said: “The safety equipment is essential and not an optional extra. Schools have to be safe and hygienic places.
“The costs for safety kit will likely increase as more pupils start returning to class. This is not an area for cost-cutting.”
Ron Constable, secretary of the Aberdeen branch of the EIS education workers’ union said: “As an organisation, we have been pushing the importance of PPE since the start of the pandemic and we believe it is absolutely essential.
“The council has to keep its staff safe by providing PPE, and if that means spending this sort of money it’s got to be done.
“It’s absolutely essential for keeping teachers, other staff and pupils safe.”
An Aberdeen City Council spokeswoman said: “We have followed Scottish Government guidance and we continue to spend money to support the safe reopening of our schools.
“Funding has been provided to assist in meeting the costs and it is expected that increased spending will continue as schools reopen again this week.”
Aberdeenshire Council said it was unable to provide information on how much it had spent on PPE for schools.
Meanwhile, on Monday, the youngest pupils in the north-east returned to the classroom – with most having learned from home since December.
Only the most vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers have been allowed in school buildings since the current lockdown was imposed following a rise in cases.
Pupils said they were pleased to be back at school, while parents spoke of their relief.
At Laurencekirk Primary, six-year-old pupil Lucy said: “Having my teachers and my friends back makes me really happy, because I really missed them.
“I love maths and my mum is good, but I missed learning with my teachers.”
Kirsty Sephton, whose son is in a composite class of P3 and P4 pupils at the school, said: “It would definitely be a hard start as he is now used to just having a few hours of learning and then playing with the dog outside, to suddenly be thrown into a full day back away from home.
“I think this is the thing with going in and out of school – it has really broken that daily routine of having classes all day, so even getting up was a bit hard this morning.
“Of course, I understand why they closed, and I’m happy he is back.”
She added: “The teachers have done a really amazing job with online learning during these two months, but it would be so much better for him to be in class.
“My son is an only child, so finally having his friends around him will do him a world of good.”
Aberdeenshire Council’s education and children’s services director Laurence Findlay said: “The priority is getting young people back into routine and into a learning environment, as well as focusing on their health and wellbeing, and social skills.
“The schools have done an amazing job in the past two weeks since the announcement was made just to get us ready for today.
“All the risk assessment details have been updated with various mitigations put in place to support safe spaces in the school.
“Communications have also gone out to parents not to congregate when they take the children to school and make sure there is plenty of physical distancing between them.”
Mr Findlay added: “Digital technology would probably have a greater role in future than it has had until now.
“There is a lot of talk about the loss of learning in these two months, but actually there has been a lot of good learning going on at home as well.
“We’ve probably come around 10 years ahead in how we use technology and this plays a big role in identifying gaps in learning, and looking at how we can work collectively to support pupils.
“It would never replace the fundamental interaction between a teacher and a pupil in a classroom, but there are some elements from this experience that we’d want to keep in the future and build on these digital approaches of learning.”
Laurencekirk headteacher Jill Smith said the school would look to embrace the technological developments brought about by the pandemic.
She said: “We are absolutely delighted to welcome all of our pupils back where they belong to resume face-to-face teaching.
“Our main priority is to make this transition as smooth as possible and help pupils re-engage.
“But there is a real opportunity for some robust conversations about education and how we can learn and grow in this pandemic, to move things forward.
“We have had no choice but to develop our confidence in using digital technology and we must capitalise on that and keep that momentum going.
“But it has also given us time to reflect on the other things that we truly value – the active learning, the face-to-face interaction and the collaboration.
“So we now need to fuse all of these together and create an education system that fits in the 21st century.”
The pupils’ return to school came as deputy first minister John Swinney said the Scottish Government “want to make sure it is the last lockdown”.
Mr Swinney, who is also the Scottish Government’s education minister, admitted repeatedly shutting down society has had a “severe impact”.
He said: “We want to make sure it’s the last lockdown, we want to avoid another lockdown as much as we possibly can do, because the lockdown is having a severe impact on every part of our society, in particular on the wellbeing of individuals, and we are very, very concerned about that.
“Essentially we want to make sure we do the right things just now to suppress the virus to as low a level as we possibly can do in society.
“We’ve made huge progress.”
“One of the biggest considerations and concerns that ministers in Scotland have is that we do not want to see this virus galloping away from us again,” he said.
“It galloped away from us just after Christmas and we had to move into lockdown.
“We want to avoid a similar circumstance arising in the future, that’s why we’re treading with such caution.”