By Larry Flanagan

The Scottish Government has been on the front foot this week to persuade everyone that schools are safe spaces, but what is the truth of the matter?

In reality, much of the data produced this week references the first six weeks of schools being reopened, when community levels were relatively low, and not the October-to-November period when the level of Covid infection in schools has rocketed – from just over a total of 400 cases in late September to just under 5,000 cases last week – matching the community increases which have led to 11 council areas moving to Level 4.

In the week ending November 8, the rate per 100,000 for 14 and 15-year-olds was 180.4, whereas for the general population it was only 153.4.

One Glasgow secondary school recently had over 400 pupils self-isolate from a school roll of just over 560 – and yet the school stayed open, apparently because that was the Public Health Scotland advice, echoing the mantra from the First Minister.

That school should have closed not only to contribute to driving down a widespread community outbreak but also because all of those pupils would have had a better educational experience if everyone had been on a remote platform with class teachers, those without symptoms, able to support their own pupils.

For the avoidance of any doubt, EIS members support the prioritisation of keeping schools open, because as teachers we understand better than any politician the role of schools in supporting and nurturing the well-being of young people, but it is not an unreasonable caveat to say that this cannot be at the expense of the health and safety of school communities – pupils, teachers, cleaning and catering staff, janitors and support staff.

In August, the Deputy First Minister often stated that the best way to ensure the safety of schools was to drive down the level of community infection. We agree – but Level 4 is an admittance that community infection is high so what do we then do, to ensure schools are safe? The Government guidance states school should remain open with enhanced mitigations but in reality absolutely nothing changes at Level 4 – there is not a single additional mitigation.

Even for paused shielding teachers, the Government has failed to protect these vulnerable individuals by matching the advice for shielding pupils who are advised to stay at home. Instead, the power again lies with the employer to decide if a school is safe, even though we already know that several councils have shamefully set their face against allowing shielding teachers to work from home, even overturning clinical advice which recommends that this should happen.

A study by Public Health England listed common locations for virus spread and schools came second, with secondaries scoring 12.7, behind supermarkets (18.3). Pubs were near the bottom with 1.6, gyms 1.1, and cafés/restaurants at 1.0.

Put simply, leaving schools out of any Level 4 restrictions, weakens the impact of virus suppression.

Even if we moved to blended learning, we would make a difference. Critically blended learning keeps schools open but introduces two-metre physical distancing – the single most constant advice about safety.

Schools would accommodate as many pupils as possible in the classroom, although inevitably some rotation would be needed. Critically, however, the teacher would still be directing the off-site learning, making use of the many resources which have been developed since lockdown to support this approach.

Within the Government Guidance both blended and remote leaning remain as necessary contingencies but if we are never going to use them, what is the point in citing them? At Level 4 they should be deployed where required.

To reiterate, the EIS wants to see schools open but safety cannot be ignored. If it is, we are prepared to ballot members on the option of safety strikes. We would prefer not to reach that point, but we need to see more from both the Scottish Government and from Councils.

Larry Flanagan is General Secretary of Scotland’s largest teaching union, the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS)