RISING teacher absence rates due to Covid-19 will create “real challenges” in Scottish education as pupils battle to get their learning back on track.

The warning from union leaders came after data from the Covid-19 Education Recovery Group revealed the number of teaching staff who were absent with the illness or its symptoms jumped by just over 30 per cent from 160 to 209 between October 13 and 20.

And the combined number absent with the virus or symptoms – or who did not have these but were absent because they were self-isolating, shielding, quarantining or looking after someone affected by it, such as their child – increased 12.6% from 833 to 938.

Infection rates across primary and secondary school age groups also appear to be trending upwards.

The rise has been particularly steep among 14 to 15-year-olds, with the figure sitting at 78.2 cases per 100,000 in the week ending October 11.

And, after falling between September 27-October 4, the rate among 16 to 17-year-olds jumped again between October 4-11 to 163.3 cases per 100,000 – significantly above the general population figure of 124.3.

The EIS teaching union said the data - based on responses from 21 local authorities – highlighted the need for extra staff and space.

Larry Flanagan, general secretary, said: “The EIS is greatly concerned at the rise in staff absences, which create real challenges in terms of supporting pupil education and also ensuring school compliance with mitigations such as enhanced cleaning regimes.”

The union has already warned that the new five-tier Covid alert system, which envisages schools staying open even at the highest level, had left teachers feeling they could be regarded as “expendable” and said blended or remote learning should be looked at as “contingencies”.

Mr Flanagan added: “As we move towards the winter period, the risk of illness will be increased so it is essential that local authorities take action now – including employing additional teaching staff and providing extra space for learning to take place safely with physical distancing in place. Schools cannot operate without teaching staff so councils need to be diligent in exercising their duty of care to staff.”

Jim Thewliss, General Secretary at School Leaders Scotland, said signs that absence rates are “creeping up” were cause for concern.

“You have the longterm effect on learning and then there’s the impact on... those young people going on to do national certification at the end of this school year,” he said.

“If teachers are absent, of course there will be a negative impact there. It would be great to think that we could get supply teachers in and, anecdotally, we’re hearing that there are supply teachers looking to come in. So we’d like to see a coordinated approach to really maximise that limited resource.”

Councillor Stephen McCabe, children and young people spokesperson at Cosla, said local authorities had been “recruiting additional teaching and support staff from the monies provided by Scottish Government”.

He added: “We know that councils have put in place a range of measures to support staff which includes access to mental health and wellbeing support, professional learning opportunities and coaching and mentoring.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “While it is difficult to draw an accurate picture of the position in schools when numerous local authorities are on half-term break, in July we announced £80 million of additional funding for education staff - enough to recruit around 1,400 additional teachers and 200 support staff to support education recovery in the current school year. Almost 1,200 of these teachers have already been recruited.

“Teachers who are self-isolating can also provide support for pupils remotely where that may be required. We also continue to work with the General Teaching Council for Scotland to mobilise additional teachers - including  lapsed and those who have recently retired - if required.”