Covid Scotland: Calls for delayed reopening of schools in January as Omicron surges
Schools across Scotland should face a delayed reopening in the new term, with a return to blended or remote learning if necessary in order to combat the spread of the Covid-19 Omicron variant, unions have warned.
The Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA) said the beginning of the new term in January should be put back by at least a “few days” in order to help stem infection rates and allow staff to prepare for mitigation measures.
Seamus Searson, the union’s general secretary, also warned there was “nothing new” in the revised guidance issued by the Scottish Government to ensure schools are as safe as possible come the new year.
The nation’s largest teaching union, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), said if the best way of protecting public health was a period of remote learning for pupils, then the Scottish Government “must not be afraid” to roll it out.
With absence rates in schools rising to a three-month high in the midst of a surge in Omicron cases, the government has tightened its guidance around schools in the hope of reducing transmission once children return after the Christmas break.
Class or year group bubbles could be reintroduced by individual schools or local authorities, with efforts to reduce school visitors and improve guidance around ventilation.
Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said the measures reflected the threat posed by Omicron, and would be reviewed on an ongoing basis.
However, Mr Searson said such steps would only go so far, and emphasised the need for a delayed start to the new term in January.
He told Scotland on Sunday: “If the numbers keep going up, and it looks like that is going to be the case for some time to come, then we are not going to be in a fit state to reopen schools as normal in January.
“We’re already hearing of schools that are not fully staffed, and parents are keeping their kids off to ensure they don’t catch Covid in the run up to Christmas.
“The idea that we need to keep schools open at all costs just doesn’t add up. The NHS is a vital life and death service. The education system is crucial, but it’s not life and death, and if we can keep people safe, that’s surely a good thing.”
Mr Searson said the government’s strengthened guidance on CO2 monitoring and ventilation was something his union had been arguing for as long ago as last year, and criticised the piecemeal approach in place across schools.
“It’s happening in some schools but it’s not happening in all of them. The government is talking about upping the ante, but it should have been doing that a year ago,” he added.
“Talking it up is one thing, but getting it done is quite another. The biggest problem is with local authorities, who interpret the government guidance in a different way.
“Some have been very good at installing CO2 monitors in main rooms identified as at risk, but other schools share them around different rooms, with measurements being taken before children arrive for class in the morning.”
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS, said the sharp rise in Covid-19 cases and the emergence of Omicron - now the dominant variant in Scotland - was having a “significant impact” on schools.
The union called on the government to consider closing schools last week to provide a “firebreak”, but the proposal was rejected.
He said: “There is a clear need for strong mitigations once schools reopen after the break, with enhanced cleaning regimes, improvements in ventilation, and the continuation of other measures such as use of face coverings and appropriate physical distancing measures.
“The Scottish Government must be led by the science, and act in the best interests of protecting public health. If that necessitates schools moving to remote learning for a period, then that is a step that the government must not be afraid to take.”
Ahead of the Christmas holidays, some local authorities conceded there may be a need to reintroduce remote learning come the new year.
Last week, Carrie Lindsay, Fife Council’s executive director for education, told parents remote learning would be introduced in “individual settings” if the staffing position in any one school meant whole classes, year groups or indeed the whole school setting needed to be at home.
“We fully recognise the importance of children being in school but given the extended isolation period now in place for all positive cases of Covid-19 and their household contacts, it is possible that this might be required in individual settings,” she explained in a letter to parents.
“We will continue to do everything we can to avoid this, however, if this is the best way to keep our children, young people and staff safe, while trying to minimise the risk of disruption to families, your school will be in contact with you directly to advise.”
Ms Lindsay’s letter advised where remote learning was required, it would take the form of a combination of “live” interactions between teachers and pupils, and learning which takes place away from the direct presence of the class teacher.
Her letter continued: “The balance of ‘live’ interactions and independent tasks will be dependent on the availability of teachers. Learning at home activities will include opportunities to consolidate and extend learning, taking account of and meeting the needs of learners and their families.
“Tasks and activities may include use of suggested websites, pre-recorded lessons, research, project work, practical opportunities and problem solving. Whilst some of these tasks will require use of a digital device, many will not.”