Surging Covid case rates are significantly increasing the infection risk for teachers and pushing schools towards the point at which lack of class cover results in even more children being sent home, union leaders have warned.

It comes after virus-related pupil absences rose by more than a quarter in the early part of this week, with figures showing 38,361 were not in classrooms on Tuesday.

The total – which is up from 30,196 the day before - marks a new high and is more than five times the number (7,435) recorded for August 19.

Although there was a marked drop between Friday of last week and Monday, the figures suggest overall pupil absences due to Covid-related sickness, school closure, self-isolation or parental choice are trending relentlessly upwards.

Self-isolation was the largest driver of this week’s increase, with 28,107 pupils affected on Tuesday – an increase from 22,770 the day before. This follows a policy change designed to ensure self-isolation in the 5 to 17 age group is targeted at close contacts deemed to have a higher infection risk. Those who are asked to take a PCR test can also return to class after confirmation of a negative result.

READ MORE: Covid in Scotland: One in 20 pupils tested positive

Other statistics show case rates among 5 to 15-year-olds are still rising sharply. In the week ending September 5, there were 1,556 cases per 100,000 5 to 11-year-olds and 2,529.3 per 100,000 12 to 15-year-olds.

Among 16 to 17-year-olds the rate dipped to 1,915.8 per 100,000. However, this is still several times the figure recorded earlier last month.  

The figures are a sign that the highly transmissible Delta variant is continuing to drive Covid’s spread, with a decision expected soon on whether to extend the offer of vaccination to all 12-15 year olds.

Currently, there is a requirement for staff and children aged 12 or over to wear face coverings in school buildings, while investment is being provided to boost ventilation through the use of devices such as CO2 monitors. Staff social distancing rules have also been retained. Arrangements are due to be reviewed six weeks into the new term.

However, Seamus Searson, General Secretary at the SSTA union, said he feared the latest case rate and pupil absence figures were a sign that adherence to mitigation rules in many places was not sufficiently strict. He also warned that a sustained worsening of the situation over the coming weeks could result in serious staff shortages.

HeraldScotland: Seamus Searson is worried current trends could lead to a situation in which schools struggle to find class cover.Seamus Searson is worried current trends could lead to a situation in which schools struggle to find class cover.

“There seems to be a little bit of a sense that ‘the pandemic is all over, I can go to the pub or a restaurant, and it’s back to normal’,” he said. “But the Government has to put out the clear message that, whatever the situation in wider society, schools are different and the safety rules must be adhered to. But that’s not what I’m hearing from schools.

"Some people who get Covid aren’t being contacted by the contact tracers. Some teachers are saying their classrooms are very hot and they can’t get ventilation. People are now quite relaxed about social distancing and masks. Staff meetings are being held. Some schools are talking about more visitors coming in.”

Stressing he did not think contact tracing arrangements were adequately robust, Mr Searson added: “At the moment, the only people in schools being vaccinated universally are the staff and 16 to 17-year-olds. And the problem, with case rates soaring, is that the virus gets passed on to the teacher, who then cannot be in school even though it’s less likely they’ll get very sick thanks to the vaccine.

“We’re getting to that point where there aren’t enough teachers to cover classes - when senior staff will have to say, ‘if I don’t have a teacher then a certain group of pupils will just have to go home’.”

READ MORE: When do pupils have to self isolate and what are rules in schools?

Larry Flanagan, EIS General Secretary, said the new figures “clearly give cause for concern”. He added: “The EIS continues to advocate for stronger testing regimes around identified close contacts, better information flow to schools and parents, and for 12 to 15-year-olds to be allowed to choose to be vaccinated as important steps in seeking to reduce the current disruption to education.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “It is important we continue to work collaboratively to ensure our schools are as safe as possible.

“We strongly encourage all secondary pupils and school staff to take an at-home test twice weekly. It’s an important step in our efforts to tackle the spread of Covid-19, and all results should be recorded, whether positive, negative or void. We have written to local authorities to ask that efforts continue to be made to increase uptake and reporting."

HeraldScotland: A decision is expected soon on whether to extend the offer of vaccination to all 12 to 15-year-olds.A decision is expected soon on whether to extend the offer of vaccination to all 12 to 15-year-olds.

He added: "Our guidance, which is informed by expert advice, helps to protect pupils, staff, and learning.

"The policy is kept under constant review to ensure it remains appropriate in light of the latest data and evidence.”