Nicola Sturgeon has insisted it is “right” that schools in Scotland stayed open this term, as teachers again raised concerns over safety during the coronavirus pandemic.
Pupils across the country have continued attending classes, even when 11 local council areas were placed under the toughest Level 4 Covid-19 restrictions.
The EIS teaching union has reiterated its calls for the Scottish Government to consider blended learning – where youngsters learn remotely from home for part of the school week – with another union, the NASUWT, also supporting such a move.
General secretary Larry Flanagan said: “Our members want to be in schools working with pupils – but they also want pupils and staff to be safe.
“The Scottish Government’s rejection of remote or blended learning for schools in areas with high rates of infection has increased the level of risk for pupils, teachers and their families.
“It is time for the Scottish Government to rethink this damaging policy, with the danger of increasing rates of community infection throughout the winter months.”
The EIS has published new papers highlighting teachers’ concerns.
These include difficulties with social distancing in classrooms, face coverings “not being worn consistently” in secondary schools where senior pupils and teachers are required to wear them, and fears from some that case numbers in schools are not being recorded accurately.
One teacher said: “It is a pretence to say that Covid protections are fully in place.
“Many senior students do not wear masks and we often end up herded together in pinch-points like corridors as students travel from one class to another.”
Another secondary school teacher said: “We are seen as expendable. We are teaching so, so, close to pupils of all year groups with no social distancing and no protection – except a simple mask when present with upper school pupils.
“I’m worried I’m going to catch Covid and suffer serious health complications just for going to my job.”
Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, said it is “widely recognised, including by the Scottish Government, that the relaxation of the Covid restrictions over Christmas is likely to significantly drive up rates of virus transmission”.
He said Ms Sturgeon’s comments “seem designed to play down the role of schools in driving virus transmission”, as he insisted: “We believe there is evidence linking virus transmission to schools and we are concerned that without further safety measures being put in place in schools there is the potential to create a ‘perfect storm’ once schools reopen in January.
“It is not acceptable and, indeed, it would be reckless, for ministers to not take all reasonable steps available to prevent a further surge in Covid-19 cases in schools in the new year.”
His comments came after Ms Sturgeon cited new reports from Public Health Scotland as backing up the Scottish Government’s stance that schools should remain open.
The First Minister, speaking at her regular coronavirus briefing, said the figures show “almost two-thirds of schools have not had any pupil cases of Covid”.
Around 620 children aged between two and 17 are currently diagnosed with coronavirus every week in Scotland – a rate of 70 per 100,000 children, Public Health Scotland found.
At the peak of wave two, it said “around 11% of schools had one or more children diagnosed with Covid each week” – with this amounting to around a third of secondary schools and one in 12 primary schools.
Speaking about the impact of the virus on school staff, Ms Sturgeon said the experts had found “no evidence of any difference in the risk of hospitalisation for teachers when compared to the general population”.
She said the risk of severe Covid-19 “actually seems to be lower in teachers than in the population as a whole”.
While she stressed the Scottish Government will “continue to listen very carefully to the concerns of teachers and others”, she added the reports support the view “it has been right for schools to remain open”.
Teachers in Edinburgh have become the latest to vote in favour of declaring a formal dispute with their employer over safety concerns.
The EIS said members in the capital were the fourth local group to take such a step, with ballots also under way on the issue in both Argyll and Bute and Midlothian.
The Edinburgh EIS executive will now have talks with leaders in the City of Edinburgh Council, local association secretary Alison Murphy said.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “We recognise that this is an anxious time for teachers, families and pupils and we are grateful to all school staff for their dedication and hard work during a very challenging time.
“Reports published today by Public Health Scotland on the impact of coronavirus (Covid-19) on school staff and young people since August provide a range of new data that collectively shows that schools remain safe and underline the crucial health, wellbeing and educational benefits of children and young people being in school.
“The guidance on reducing the risks of Covid-19 in schools includes robust measures to help protect teachers, pupils and the whole school community. We will continue to monitor the situation closely and listen to any concerns.”