Letter from the General Secretary on the Reopening of Schools

Created on: 22 May 2020 | Last modified: 15 Jul 2021

Dear Colleagues

Firstly, may I thank everyone who made a return in the recent survey – over 26,000 responses were received, a record return for the EIS and the biggest teacher survey in Scotland.

In the replies over 95% of members endorsed the three EIS red lines for the reopening of schools:

  • Established capacity to “test trace and isolate”

  •  Significant operational changes in place to ensure implementation of all health guidelines e.g. effective social distancing, enhanced hygiene routines, and ongoing risk assessments in place
  •  Transparent and shared evidence that the spread of infection is under control and that schools and educational establishments are safe places to work

These red lines remain in place and Government is aware of our resolve to keep to these, to ensure the safety of teachers and young people.

Indeed, so successfully have we lobbied for these that they are echoed in the document published yesterday by the Scottish Government:

The implementation of this approach [to schools reopening] is conditional on two factors: i) scientific and medical advice that it is safe to proceed, ii) implementation of complementary public health measures, (including but not limited to test, trace, isolate and support practices as well as guidance on, and supply of, any appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) for all staff).

The date of August 11th is a target therefore, which will only be realised if it is safe to do so in terms of the above conditions.

The Government has used its powers to direct a common start date for all schools (although August 11th is more likely to be an in-service day than a pupil return date). Two points are relevant here – firstly it could have directed a start date even earlier, but it was persuaded to look at the earliest planned return for some Councils, which is Aug 11th

The second point is to emphasise that no-one will lose any holiday entitlement. For those Councils which were due to return later there will be a local negotiation through the LNCT to relocate the time e.g. to the start of next year’s summer break or even, as long as technical issues can be addressed, to the start of this summer’s break. The SNCT will issue guidelines to direct these discussions. These guidelines will also cover the need for local flexibilities for individuals who have pre-made commitments which cannot be broken or moved.

Clearly the change of holiday dates will be an inconvenience to some members but at a time when many people are facing redundancies or uncertain futures, and with the flexibility for prior commitments to be honoured,  I think it is a variation we are required to thole at this time, colleagues.

You will have read of the need for schools to reopen based on a blended learning approach – put simply, a mixture of part time in school learning for pupils, and part time remote learning. The need for this arises from the second of our red lines – implementation of health guidance, specifically physical distancing.

Applying this to a classroom setting will mean a significant reduction in class sizes, to enable the requisite 2 metre distancing between individuals at all times (or between small groups of children in ELC settings). It will be for schools and local authorities to review the school estate and calculate the numbers which can be housed using this measure. This will vary depending on actual room sizes, free floor space, layout, etc. There are very specific considerations for practical subjects and spaces, also.

The EIS will be issuing advice to members and offering training to school reps before schools reopen so that issues such as this can be addressed, alongside other critical health and safety guidance on issues such as cleaning regimes, hygiene protocols, PPE requirements where they apply, and ongoing risk assessments.

Our survey highlighted that we have a significant number of members with underlying health conditions (20%) and shielding responsibilities (17.5%). The Scottish Government advice hasn’t changed, and members will continue to be advised to work from home if they are within a shielded or vulnerable group.

Where members have childcare responsibilities (32%), the Council will require to make provision on days when children may not be rostered to be at school, to allow staff, who will be categorised key workers, to continue to work.   

In terms of remote learning, Education Scotland has been charged to provide central resources for use by schools since, clearly, teachers cannot be teaching full time and, also, creating remote learning resources. These ES resources are being worked on at the moment.

Agreement has still to be reached in relation to SQA procedures, although the EIS has stressed that early advice is critical. There are two key challenges: how to deliver courses when class time faces being drastically reduced; and, how to future proof awards against the possibility of a second wave of the virus. The EIS favours some form of continuous assessment, but we are mindful also, that teachers cannot be asked to cope with significant changes to courses in an already difficult period. 

We will update members on all of this as soon as we can.

Finally, colleagues, may I turn to the questions of what may happen in June.

Firstly, teachers will not be returning en masse to school buildings on June 1st. The FM stated yesterday that the current guidance is that where possible people should work from home – teachers are not an exception to that and whilst that remains in place, there will only be limited exemptions.

What the Scottish Government has asked Local Authorities to do is to plan for some level of return to school buildings ‘when it is safe to do so’. That would require a deep clean process, a full risk assessment to have been carried out (involving the EIS) and a change to the Government’s key public health and workplace health and safety messaging. This may happen in June but that will depend on where we are with controlling the virus.

The Scottish Government Education Directive is quite clear:

- Requires all education authorities to plan for and prepare for children to resume attendance at schools (including nursery schools and nursery classes) at the earliest time it is safe to do so. This is set out further in the Strategic Framework, and local authorities are asked to prepare Local Phasing Delivery Plans which will provide a level of operational detail. For the avoidance of doubt no such re-opening may take place unless and until this is permitted by a further Educational Continuity Direction.

- Allows access (subject to relevant advice and guidance relating to public health and workplace safety) to teachers and staff (and others who are authorised by the education authority, such as contractors) to schools from June 2020. The exact timing of this will be informed by future guidance, and it is therefore important to make clear that staff should not be back in settings for this purpose until it is advised as safe to do so by the Scottish Government.

In the event that there is some limited return to schools in June to prepare for next year, the EIS will be asking what is the priority: hub support, remote learning or preparing for blended learning? Teachers cannot do all three simultaneously!

My advice above about those shielding, with underlying health conditions, or with childcare requirements would apply in June also - work from home if you can.

Colleagues, I realise that this has been a long communication and yet it still may not have answered all your questions. We will prepare some fresh FAQs on a return to school theme and post them as soon as possible on the website. 

Throughout this Covid crisis, the EIS has engaged on all levels to support and protect members both throughout lockdown and in the planning for an eventual safe return to schools. This has included regular contact with the Scottish Government, COSLA, GTCS, SQA, Education Scotland, individual local authorities, and other stakeholders.

We have been working also on the Education Recovery Group and the SNCT.  You can be assured, colleagues, that we will not stint in continuing to advocate on your behalf.

Discussions will be taking place at both national and local level and we will seek to keep you informed as they progress.

In the meantime, thank you again for all your hard work in supporting our young people.

If this is a holiday weekend for you, enjoy the break.

Stay safe and best wishes