SCOTLAND’S largest teaching union has warned of possible strike action unless more pupils are educated at home in the areas hardest hit by coronavirus.  

The EIS said there was “clear support for moving to industrial action” in level 4, which currently covers 11 councils and more than 2m people.  

It followed the EIS and fellow teaching union the NASUWT both publishing surveys of teachers showing a demand for a shift to blended learning to improve staff safety.

The NASUWT also found most teachers thought the Scottish Government had made a “political decision” to keep schools fully open, rather than one based on safety. 

The EIS survey found only a third of teachers currently feel safe from Covid in schools.

Although there was support for schools remaining open, there was also a demand for a reduction in face-to-face teaching in the areas of highest infection and toughest lockdown.

Before the summer holidays, the Scottish Government initially proposed blending learning for the autumn term, but dropped the idea after a parental backlash at the idea of children being taught only one or two days a week in class, with the rest at ome and online.

Just under half of EIS respondents (48%) believed schools in level 3 areas should use a blended learning model to enable physical distancing.

However at level 4, most respondents (51%) believed remote learning should be introduced on safety grounds, with 34% favouring blended learning and 11% maintaining current arrangements but with additional safety mitigations in place.

Despite support for keeping schools open where safe, two-thirds of respondents (66%) indicated a willingness to support industrial action, including strike action, in protest at failure to move to blended or remoted learning in higher risk (Level 4) areas of the country where staff deemed it necessary.

The NASUWT survey found 85% of teachers working in level 3 and 4 areas thought their schools should more to a blended or remote learning.

Over three-quarters (77%) believed their school staying open was a political decision, rather than one based on safety, and 76% of teachers across Scotland felt the Government was not providing the necessary support for them and their school in the pandemic.

Two-thirds of teachers reported pupils in their school had displayed symptoms of Covid-19, with 51% saying classes or year groups had been sent home because of suspected or confirmed cases of the virus, while 57% said staff in their school have displayed symptoms.

EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan said teacher wanted to be in schools working with pupils, but there were major safety concerns.

He said: “It is clear that a significant number of teachers (43%) do not feel safe working in schools under the existing arrangements. 

“This feeling of being at risk is particularly heightened for teachers in secondary schools, for teachers in higher risk areas under Level 3 or Level 4 restrictions, and for teachers in vulnerable groups or who live with or provide care for vulnerable family members.

“Although [EIS] members hold a range of opinions on the best means of keeping pupils and teachers safe, there is clear support for moving to industrial action in higher risk areas to protest where teachers feel that the measures required to keep schools safe have not been delivered.”

He added: “The EIS has repeatedly said that schools remaining operational cannot come at the expense of teacher and pupil wellbeing. 

“Just as importantly, blended and remote learning models are increasingly being adopted to stem increases in Covid community infection levels. 

“For Level 4 restrictions to be as effective as we would wish them to be, short term closure or part closure of schools need to be considered.”

NASUWT General Secretary Patrick Roach said his union wanted schools to remain open, but it had to be done safely for pupils and staff alike.

He said: “We believe that a move to blended learning with smaller class sizes in areas with the highest rates of Covid should be part of the strategy to managing and suppressing the virus, along with greater protections for clinically vulnerable staff and enhanced safety mitigations.

“We need better data on case numbers in schools, a system of inspection and enforcement of safety measures, rigorous protocols on self-isolation when cases do occur and more funding and resources for schools to ensure safety is not compromised on the grounds of cost.

“The challenges of developing and adopting blended and remote learning are clearly having an unsustainable impact on teachers’ workloads, which is why funding for additional supply teachers is needed so that schools can maintain consistent and high-quality learning provision for pupils learning in the classroom and at home.”

Tory MSP Jamie Greene said: “Our schools are now bearing the heavy brunt of a decade of SNP cuts which left them with 3,000 fewer teachers than when this government took office.

“Parliament voted with a clear call for the SNP to properly resource our classrooms, unanimous in its support for improved teacher safety and support. 

“But the answer to this is not strikes or industrial action, a move which will only harm the education of our young people even more than what they’ve endured already. 

“The answer lies in mass staff testing, more teachers and better support for those isolating at home. Each of those in their own right are a complete failure of this SNP Government to date.”

Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Beatrice Wishart MSP said: “Teachers could not be more clear. They are not being made to feel safe in their schools. There are legitimate and serious concerns, but so far teachers have been met with blunt dismissal. 

"I wrote to the Education Secretary last month to request he imports the framework used in Denmark, where schools have to follow the doctors’ orders on working arrangements. 

“That was ignored, and now the SNP Government is adopting the same response to being defeated at Parliament.

“The Scottish Government need to ensure that there is a Scotland-wide safety net, with a clear option to work from home for the people who need it. Nobody should be forced to choose between their health and their job security.

“The Scottish Government’s failure to acknowledge these concerns risks causing more damage and disruption to the pupils, teachers and parents who have already gone through the mill this year. The Education Secretary needs to listen to what teachers are telling him.”

Green MSP Ross Greer MSP also urged education secretary John Swinney to  improve school safety in the wake of the survey findings. 

He said: “The Scottish Government has made frontline school staff feel expendable, consistently ignoring their concerns throughout this crisis. 

“Last week Parliament agreed to the Greens’ Safe Schools proposals, including that regular testing be introduced to schools immediately. 

“Today’s survey results show just how urgent that is.

“Our proposals also included protections for clinically vulnerable staff but unfortunately I am still receiving reports from extremely vulnerable teachers in Tier 4 areas who have been told they must turn up to school this week, despite their doctors advising otherwise. 

“It’s time that Mr Swinney took teachers’ concerns seriously, and follow Parliament’s instruction that he make our schools safe for teachers, staff and pupils.”

At the daily briefing, Nicola Sturgeon refused to comment on the EIS release before she had read it.

However, in response to the NASUWT findings, she said: “Safety and minimising transmission are at the top of our minds all of the time. But in schools so too is the broader wellbeing of young people.

“Young people spent four months out of school earlier this year. That is not good and it wasn’t good for them. So we’re trying to avoid that happening again.

"But that doesn’t mean that we’re not interested in the wider issues of safety and transmission in and around schools.

"The safety of teachers, pupils, everybody who works in a school is paramount.

"But the balanced judgment we are making at this stage, is that the harm to young people that would come from being out of school again for a period of time would be greater than any harm associated with the transmission of virus in or around schools.

"That’s the balanced judgment, considered very carefully right now, but that doesn’t mean we’ll stop listening to and paying close attention to concerns and views from teachers and others.”