Fears over empty classes as pupils skip school to safeguard summer holidays amid Covid rise
Large numbers of Scottish schoolchildren will miss the final week of the school term due to the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, it has been warned.
It is feared there could be a major jump in absenteeism due to a combination of high numbers of new cases forcing classmates to self-isolate and pupils being kept off in a bid to avoid potential contact that could result in families missing out on booked summer holidays.
Provisional figures indicate 15,687 Scottish pupils were already absent for Covid-related reasons at the end of last week, with overall attendance dropping to 87.8 per cent – the lowest percentage since pupils returned after Easter.
This includes a large proportion of children absent due to the need to self-isolate, rather than actually suffering from Covid-19
It is thought the rise is partly driven by the emergence of the Delta variant, first discovered in India, which is significantly more transmissible than other strains.
More than nine out of ten new infections involve the Delta variant, with the number of cases across the UK trebling in the past week.
Children’s rights campaigners say families should have the power to decide for themselves the best course of action.
Jo Bisset, organiser for Us For Them Scotland, said: “Parents know what’s best for their kids and after the horrendous year they’ve had should be afforded some freedom of choice at last.
“Of course, the over-zealous rules and continuing confusion over guidance isn’t helping them to make a decision.
“If schools had stayed open throughout and the government had prioritised the rights of children, none of these dilemmas would now be presenting themselves.”
Scottish Greens health and social care spokeswoman Gillian Mackay has suggested schools should be “sympathetic” if pupils are absent.
“It is understandable that many families will want to avoid the risk of catching Covid in the final days of what has been a hugely challenging school year,” she said.
“I’d encourage young people to continue using the regular tests that are available to them.
“I’d urge schools to adopt a sympathetic approach to any such absences.”
But a number of Scottish local authorities have warned that keeping pupils off school unnecessarily will be considered an “unauthorised absence”, including Moray and Edinburgh.
Glasgow City Council is also urging parents to send their offspring to classes.
A spokeswoman for the authority said: “We understand that our children and young people have had a very tough year and our schools will be encouraging pupils to attend school up to the last day of term as the stringent health and safety measures remain in place to help reduce the risk of the virus.”
A City of Edinburgh Council spokesman said: “Any unauthorised absences would be dealt with by individual schools in line with our absence policy.”
Cake-maker Lee Picken, a mother of two from the Juniper Green area of Edinburgh, has already twice been forced to postpone a booked foreign getaway in the past year because of the pandemic.
The family had been due to visit France, including a visit to Disneyland Paris, but the trip is still on hold.
Instead she is planning a two-week staycation in the UK, visiting relatives in Stratford-upon-Avon followed by a seven-day stay at a Center Parcs resort.
They are due to set off two days after her children’s primary school breaks up for the summer.
But now she fears the long-awaited break could fall through at the last minute due the recent rise in Covid cases being reported in schools and the chance that her children might be required to self-isolate.
She is discussing the idea of keeping nine-year-old son Rory and six-year-old daughter Lois home from school for the final week of term to lower the risk of contact with a positive case.
Ms Picken said she feels her family, particularly the children, have had a lot to contend with over the past year-and-a-half and are badly in need of a break.
“We have plans to go away for the first two weeks of the summer holidays, leaving on the Sunday after school breaks up,” she said.
“My thinking is that the kids have had a really rubbish time over the past 18 months.
“Not only have they missed out on their holiday to France, they’ve also had a hard time with all the disruption to schooling.
“It has been really hard for them.
“They deserve a holiday and we kind of need one as a family, to get away and have a nice time, forget all the stuff that’s been happening for a while and see some different places.
“The worst-possible scenario would be if they had to self-isolate because of Covid and we couldn’t go away.
“At least one class in the school is currently staying at home because of a positive case and there have been similar situations in recent weeks.
“As one class comes out of isolation, another one goes in.
“It might not happen, but I’m not sure we want to take the risk.
“It’s a big decision.
The number of under-15s who have recorded a positive test in Scotland is at its highest level since the pandemic began, surpassing the numbers seen at the peak of the second wave in January.
Weekly infections in those aged between zero and 14 reached 1,064 on June 7, according to the latest data from Public Health Scotland.
The figure is four times higher than it was in early May.
Ms Picken said: “I’m not that worried about the children missing school work, as most schools begin winding down in the last few days of term.
“But they are looking forward to the fun activities that usually take place at this time and are concerned about missing out.
“I’ve asked my son and he’s taking the decision very seriously.
“But I suspect he’ll come down on the side of taking the week off.”
The Scottish Conservatives called for “robust measures” in schools to ensure pupil safety and minimise further disruptions to learning.
Oliver Mundell, shadow education secretary for the party, said: “After the disruption of the last year we know that the best place for our children to learn is in our classrooms.
“However, recently we have seen a worrying increase in the number of pupils having to self-isolate as a result of Covid outbreaks in our schools.
“It is understandable that parents are concerned that their own children might be at risk of catching the virus.
“SNP ministers must guarantee that robust measures are in place to ensure schools are not overly at a greater risk from Covid outbreaks.
“That will ensure pupils will have the best chance of continuing to learn in school ahead of the summer break and can feel safe that they will then be able to enjoy holidays with their families.”
The EIS, Scotland’s biggest teaching union, was contacted about the issue, but declined to comment.