Special report by Bill Heaney

Jackie Baillie, MSP for Dumbarton Constituency, has raised serious concerns about the lack of planning from the Scottish Government to prepare for the post pandemic return of schools in just two weeks’ time.

Widespread concern has also been raised by other politicians and trade unions, including the EIS, the powerful teachers’ union.

Ms Baillie has said that, despite it being just over two weeks until pupils and teachers return to the classroom, local authorities, including West Dunbartonshire and Argyll and Bute councils, still do not have vital resources and parents’ questions are going unanswered.

She has asked the Scottish Government to provide support to local authorities who are trying to navigate a return to school without a government route map to guide them.

The MSP said: “It is completely unacceptable that parents, pupils and teachers in West Dunbartonshire and Argyll and Bute are still in the dark about when and how they should return to the classroom.

“Schools are due to open in just over two weeks. Yet local authorities still don’t actually have the resources that they need and guidance on risk reduction is still being written.

“The Scottish Government has never had a route map for the return of schools, and John Swinney still seems to be making guidance up as he goes along.

“The additional teachers that he announced today amount to less than half a staff member per school, and councils have two weeks to recruit them.

“John Swinney’s constant U-turns have meant that schools and local authorities have continually been forced to make and then scrap plans.

“The Scottish Government need to stop messing about and provide support, resources and answers now.”

However, Education Secretary Swinney has announced funding for the recruitment of additional teachers.

He told MSPs: “As part of that new funding, we are ring fencing £50 million specifically for the recruitment of additional teachers and support staff for the academic year 2020-21.

“That will enable schools to intensify support for children and young people as they return to face-to-face education and will help to mitigate any learning loss.

“Although I stress that final numbers will depend on the precise mix of staff recruited and the needs of children and young people, I expect that the money will provide sufficient funding for approximately 850 extra teachers and give local authorities the flexibility to bring in around 200 support staff in schools across Scotland, subject to final agreement with our Convention of Scottish Local Authorities partners.”

But MEPs from other parties expressed discontent with this.

Iain Gray, Labour’s education spokesperson, said: “Schools are due to open in just over two weeks, yet we still have no final decision, councils still do not have the additional resources that they need and guidance on risk mitigation is still being written.

“The Government has never had a route map for the return of schools, and it still does not have one—it still looks as though it is making it up at the last minute.

“The number of additional teachers referred to amount to fewer than half a staff member per school, and councils have two weeks left to try to recruit them. Hundreds—perhaps thousands—of newly qualified teachers, probationer teachers, supply teachers and retired teachers, who all want to help to get their schools back, still cannot get a job.

“Surely, we need to use every available qualified teacher we can? How ready are we, really? How many additional teachers have been recruited? What proportion of school buildings have been risk assessed for the return of pupils?

“As for mitigation, anyone over the age of five is wearing face coverings in shops. Can it really be the case that nobody is to wear a face covering in schools?”

But Mr Swinney told him: “Our dialogue with local authorities on the recruitment of teachers is under way. We are setting out to local authorities the financial support that is available to them to recruit teachers.

“I am very keen to ensure that newly qualified teachers are able to be utilised in the education recovery work that is taken forward.

“Local authorities and schools around the country have done an extensive volume of risk assessment and planning for the resumption of schooling.

“That work has been on-going for considerable time, as a consequence of the lockdown, to enable us to be in a position to reopen schools.

“On the question of face coverings, my view is quite simple: if anyone in a school environment wants to wear a face covering, they should be able to do so.

“However, the scientific evidence does not indicate to us that we should be obliged to enforce that position in schools. Individuals should be left to judge what their considerations and priorities are in that respect, and they should be supported in their judgment.

MSP Ross Greer, of the Green Party, said: “The Deputy First Minister has confirmed that the routine testing that the Greens called for will not be offered to staff and pupils in schools. Will he explain why there will be no such routine testing?

“There was nothing new in the cabinet secretary’s statement about vulnerable young people. Last week’s advice was that the burden to request protection should, in essence, be on them.

“We can compare the situation with that for health boards, which have been told to conduct risk assessments for black and minority ethnic staff, for example. Will schools be required to conduct equivalent risk assessments for vulnerable young people and staff?”

Mr Swinney said there would be testing – “ Risk assessments must be carried out in schools to support the resumption of schooling for young people and the work of individual staff. I sympathise with Mr Greer on the issue of surveillance testing.

“The Government has taken extensive advice from Public Health Scotland on the appropriate approach to surveillance testing. It is obvious from the measures that are available in the community in general that we will have in place a very active test-and-protect arrangement. That will be supplemented by additional surveillance testing in schools.”

Jim Halfpenny, joint secretary of the EIS teaching union in West Dunbartonshire, said: “After many months of discussion with management at WDC, the EIS, along with other local authority unions, welcomes the recent announcement increasing the number of cleaners in schools and the improvement of cleaning during the day and in the evening.

“This, we believe, is a step towards making schools safe for both pupils and staff. 

“However, the identification of local infection rates in West Dunbartonshire will be a crucial factor in any attempt to overcome this virus and this must be uppermost in any assessment of whether schools are safe.

“This assessment has been made even more difficult by the recent decision of the Scottish Government that all students should return to school without the need for social distancing.

“Teachers, who are asked to maintain social distancing, will be alarmed at this impossible situation for them. 

“Such sudden changes of direction from the Scottish Government in the last few weeks have thrown preparations for a safe return into disarray.

“While we recognise the hard work of WDC management in Education and Cleaning in their attempts to adapt to each announcement, we believe that we are still some way short of a health and safety regime that will give confidence for our return to schools.

“The failure to provide adequate PPE to Carers and Care Homes at the outbreak of this pandemic, with the inevitable tragic consequences, will give staff and parents throughout the country cause for concern that we don’t make the same mistake and underestimate the threat to health and safety in our schools.”

Neither West Dunbartonshire Council not the leader of its SNP administration, Cllr Jonathan McColl, would comment to The Democrat, which has been banned and boycotted by the SNP.

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