By Jim Halfpenny, of the EIS teaching union
In another exhibition of political expediency the Scottish Government is set to prioritise school reopening ahead of any wider loosening of Lockdown measures in society as if the world of education is immune to the COVID-19 virus.
While the current Scottish figure of infection levels is still significant at around 123 per 100,000, West Dunbartonshire’s rate sits at 173.2 per 100,000 and, worryingly still, Dalreoch records 305.4 per 100,000 and Bonhill 304 per 100,000.
We are greatly concerned about the new variant of the virus, now the dominant variant in Scotland, and its increased transmissibility, which we feel has been underplayed in the scientific Advisory Group as they give advice to the Scottish Government.
School staff will not fail to see decisions being made by those, from the comfort of their own living rooms, who seldom, if ever, come in to experience the day to day realities of school life during this pandemic.
We remain concerned that even a limited reopening of schools needs to be predicated on improved suppression of the virus and enhanced school mitigations. In the absence of such evidence there remains an unacceptable risk to the health and well-being of staff, pupils and their families.
We are clear that a precautionary approach to reopening remains essential and call for the plans to be reconsidered by Scottish Government to facilitate a blended approach which would allow for physical distancing amongst staff and pupils. This cannot be achieved without smaller classes.
We reject the Advisory Group recommendation that physical distancing between staff and pupils is not required across Primary 1-3 and insist that schools maintain 2m between all staff and pupils.
In the face of this new, more transmittable strain of the virus, we call for:
- Schools to be supplied with clinical grade face masks,
- Improved ventilation measures amidst increased risk of aerosol transmission
- Greater use of pupil bubbles and staggered school day arrangements and
- Continued protection of vulnerable and shielding staff who must be allowed to work from home.
The availability of regular testing for staff is something the EIS has been calling for, so that is welcome, as is its extension to senior phase pupils which will offer some reassurance to their families.
Whilst some progress has been made on ASN staff who deal with pupils with complex needs being vaccinated within the first
first phase of the vaccine roll out there is a need to prioritise all school staff within Phase 2 of the roll-out. If opening schools is the political objective, vaccinating teachers should be an absolute priority.
Masks and social distancing could be the order of the day for pupils if they go back to school.
A further report from BBC Scotland states that pupils who begin a phased return to secondary school later this month could face two-metre social distancing rules.
A Scottish government advisory group says the “additional protective measure” should also apply on school buses.
The two-metre rule is already in place for teachers at secondary schools, while primary pupils should observe it “whenever possible”.
Scotland’s youngest pupils are likely to return full-time from 22 February.
Some senior secondary pupils preparing for exams could also be back in the classroom from the same date.
The tougher new social distancing guidelines have been put forward by the government’s advisory group on education and children’s issues.
They are in addition to adEducation Secretary John Swinney described the proposals as “an important scientific and clinical update”.vice that there should be two-metre distancing between adults not from the same household within primary schools.
Lateral flow home testing kits will also be offered to primary, secondary, special school, early learning and childcare staff at local authority, independent and grant-aided schools.
The government advice calls for “a combination of approaches that prevent crowding” within schools.
These include classroom distancing and staggered start times “especially in older age groups”.
Scotland’s largest teachers’ union has called for the new social distancing proposals to be extended to also include younger pupils.
EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan says the union would support distancing.
EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan said: “We are concerned about the new (Covid) variant and its impact on transmissibility amongst young people.
“So we think that mitigations beyond that from the advisory group are required – the use of medical-grade face masks, for example.
“We would support physical distancing amongst young people as well as secondary-aged pupils, and we are pressing the Scottish government on these issues before schools reopen.”
The Scottish Conservatives said any proposals which accelerate pupils returning to classrooms were to be welcomed.
But the party’s education spokesman Jamie Greene added: “In reality, universal social distancing will be very difficult for many councils to deliver and SNP ministers will have known that for a long time.
“We need to see what measures they have taken to support schools to introduce social distancing, as this issue has been consistently flagged for months.”
Covid restriction rules introduced for schools last October meant senior pupils and their teachers had to wear face coverings in classrooms.
Prior to that, secondary pupils and staff only had to wear face masks when moving about within the school and on school buses. They were encouraged to social distance “where possible” but there were no formal distancing rules for pupils.
One-way systems were introduced in corridors and physical contact including hugging and high-fiving was ruled out.
Schools across Scotland have been closed to the vast majority of pupils since the Christmas holidays, with learning being done at home and online.
The first children back in school on 22 February are expected to be all pupils in P1-P3 as well as pre-school children.
There will also be a part-time return, but on a very limited basis, for senior secondary pupils to allow them to complete work for national qualifications.
Only between 5% and 8% of a secondary school’s pupil roll will be able to be present at any one time.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has stressed that the reopening of schools was dependent on the continued suppression of coronavirus.