Reopening Scotland’s schools could be “a catalyst to a resurgence” of coronavirus if the Scottish Government’s guidance is not strengthened, a teaching union has warned.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon last week announced all schools should have reopened full-time by August 18 “at the latest”, with Scotland deemed to have suppressed the spread of Covid-19 enough to allow all pupils to return.
But the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) has written to Education Secretary John Swinney expressing “significant concerns” about the proposals to reopen schools.
It urges the Scottish Government not to risk the reopening of schools causing further spread of Covid-19, arguing some of the safety guidance contains “inherent contradiction” about how physical distancing would work.
The letter, from EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan on behalf of the union’s executive committee, suggests urgent changes to the guidance, as well as regular coronavirus testing for school staff regardless of whether they have symptoms.
Other areas of concern, according to the union, include the lack of specific practical guidance on physical distancing, class sizes and the implications for public transport and shops near schools.
“I write to you in order to raise some significant concerns regarding the now published guidelines for the reopening of schools,” Mr Flanagan says.
Calling for further action to ensure safety, he adds: “The EIS welcomes the fact that Scotland appears to have successfully suppressed the virus at this point in time; however, we would not wish to see the reopening of schools act as a catalyst to a resurgence.
“That means we must ensure that school buildings are Covid-secure environments.
“Across the globe, we are witnessing how quickly things can deteriorate. Teachers, pupils, and parents have every reason to be anxious about schools reopening.”
Mr Flanagan also relays fears from teachers who have been shielding but could soon be expected to return to work in a classroom full of pupils.
“This seems to be an enormous leap and one which does not sit well with the First Minister’s warning to those who had been shielding until August 1 about continuing to be especially cautious,” he said.
Schools were closed to most pupils at the end of March as coronavirus struck, switching to a predominantly online-based learning model.
On Thursday, Mr Swinney said he was “very confident” his son will be safe when he returns to school.
Speaking to the PA news agency after the announcement, Mr Swinney tried to reassure parents who may be anxious about their children returning to schools.
He said: “I understand entirely parental anxiety about young people going back to school, I understand staff anxiety.
“It’s been a difficult period for everybody and there’s adjustment that has got to be made.”
Suggesting concerned parents could discuss their fears directly with teachers and staff, Mr Swinney added: “Schools will be sensitive to these questions, they know the children, they know the young people and they will be sensitive to their requirements, and it’s important that we listen carefully to parents on the needs of individual young people.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Ensuring the highest quality education for our young people, in a safe environment, is our absolute priority, and we also want to make sure teaching staff feel supported.
“Our guidance clearly sets out the approach that must be taken, including a number of specific risk-mitigation measures that will need to be introduced in all schools in order that they provide a safe environment for staff and pupils.
“Individual schools will carry out risk assessments on their estate, as they will know how to apply the guidance in a way that works best to ensure the safety of their setting.
“An enhanced surveillance programme for schools will allow us to closely monitor the impact of the pandemic on school-age children and young people and staff and to make adjustments to the arrangements as necessary.”