By Bill Heaney
Recent changes to the Scottish Government policy, on pupils and staff returning in August, have created chaos in schools and councils, according to Mick Dolan and Jim Halfpenny, joint secretaries of West Dunbartonshire branch of the teachers’ union, the EIS.
FM Nicola Sturgeon’s plans have swung from sending pupils back to school for a third of the week, then for half of the week and now for all of the week.
And Cllr Jonathan McColl, the controversial leader of the SNP administration, has immediately gone into lockstep with them.
In a statement issued this morning, the EIS was scathing in its criticism of the government and council plans.
It said: “Their constant changes have had little regard for the work put in by teachers and management in preparation for Blended Learning and two metre social distancing in schools.
“The weeks of planning, drawing up route maps for pupils, risk assessments produced by teams of professionals, furniture moved and stored to create space, timetabling the the education of thousands of pupils, all to be told with three working days notice that it’s all change!
“Nicola Sturgeon suggested that this effort has not been wasted, but for teachers, it certainly feels like it.
“West Dunbartonshire Council sent a letter to parents explaining how Blended Learning would work and within a few hours had to replace it with another letter saying that the Scottish Government had changed its mind and decided to send all pupils back full time.
“Confusion has given way to anger.
“On the back of speculation that things will be better by August the Scottish Government have taken a decision which may endanger the health and well-being of all involved in schools.
“If we are in a better place by August it will take time to prepare schools, to draw up specific risk assessments and to undo the physical changes to classrooms and other facilities carried out in preparation for social distancing and blended learning.
“With no firm guidelines on personal risk assessments and continued shielding for teachers in high risk groups, many schools are likely to experience substantial shortages of teachers to accommodate the return of 100% of pupils.”
The joint statement added: “After years of cuts to our pandemic preparation, we have reached the entirely avoidable tragedy of over 40,000 deaths in the UK and over 4000 in Scotland due to COVID-19.
“For months, trade unions have been questioning Government guidelines in the UK and Scotland as wholly inadequate and conditioned by years of austerity. Indeed, the failure to supply sufficient PPE to workers in care homes has caused devastation to families across the land.
“The confused messages around the need for face coverings on public transport and in shops but not in schools have left teachers concerned and dismayed.
“Clearly working a full day in an enclosed space with numerous children creates a risk which worries many teachers.
“The rate of infection in a local area must be a crucial factor in plans for a phased end to lockdown in order to protect staff and children in schools.
“Local Authorities must be given clear evidence of infection rates within their own communities which they can share with teachers.
“Another crucial component of any return to a new normal in August must be confidence in the government’s testing and contact tracing programme working effectively. This has yet to be achieved.”
Meanwhile, Scottish Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Beatrice Wishart MSP has today called on the Education Secretary to set out what measures will be taken to prevent outbreaks of COVID-19 spreading in schools and to reassure teachers about what will happen if there is a confirmed or probable case.
Willie Rennie, Holyrood and Beatrice Wishart.
Ms Wishart said: “I have been approached by a number of teachers anxious to know what precautions will be taken to ensure that schools are a safe place to work.
“At present the Scottish Government’s guidance says that “schools should contact their local health protection teams for advice if they have two or more cases”. This is far too vague.
“In New Zealand, if a school or early learning service has a confirmed or probable case of COVID-19, they must close for 72 hours to allow contact tracing, and then potentially for a further 14 days. Teachers need reassurance that an equivalent plan will be developed and put in place so that outbreaks can be effectively contained.
“If a pupil is asked by a tracer to isolate at home, what measures and precautions would that trigger at their school? Might you get whole-school precautionary closures to catch outbreaks early? We are also still waiting on the Education Secretary to confirm what the approach will be for teachers and pupils who are shielding. “
Speaking after he pressed the First Minister over childcare arrangements and support for teachers at First Minister’s Questions, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “Teachers have been working incredibly hard to deliver lessons from home and to plan for the prospect of blended learning. Now the SNP have changed course and Plan A is for full-time schooling to go ahead.
“Teachers need answers about health and safety in the classroom. They need guarantees about childcare and what will happen with pupils and teachers who are shielding. They also need a break to prevent them burning out completely.
“It will give teachers no comfort to hear that the plans for full time schooling were not agreed by the Government’s own education group. They need to know that decisions are taken on the basis of sound science, not political expediency. “The Scottish Government need to provide concrete answers to these challenges swiftly, as well as setting out what testing provision will be made available to protect teachers and pupils when they do return.”
West Dunbartonshire Council SNP administration leader Cllr Jonathan McColl refused to comment.