General Secretary Update 30 July 2020

Created on: 30 Jul 2020 | Last modified: 15 Jul 2021

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Dear Member

The Scottish Government has announced today the go ahead for schools to reopen fully from August 11th. This is perhaps not unexpected as it has been signalling its ambition to do so, since its unilateral switch of planning assumption from blended learning to full pupil return shortly before the end of last term.

The final decision was predicated on continued success in suppression of the virus, one of the three EIS red-lines, and clearly a judgment has been made by the Government that we are in that position with key indices such as the number of new infections, the death toll, and the R figure all suggesting that the lockdown measures have been effective.

Notwithstanding that, many teachers, parents and students will be nervous about schools reopening, especially those who have been in vulnerable categories over the past few months.

In these circumstances, effective implementation of the health and safety guidelines and Covid 19 mitigations is absolutely critical to schools being Covid secure environments. We will be working to this end through revised advice to schools around risk assessments, additional H&S training for reps, seeking bespoke risk assessments for vulnerable groups, and active monitoring of the implementation of the CERG (Covid Education Recovery Group) Guidelines.

The Guidelines represent what could be agreed within the group – not the totality of what the EIS was seeking. For example, we argued for a much stronger commitment to smaller class sizes and the employment of the additional staff required than the final wording published. Smaller classes not only assist with pupil physical distancing but in terms of education recovery, they would facilitate much greater individual support to pupils. Our argument has resulted, however, in an additional £30 million for staffing being announced today, on top of the £50 million ringfenced money from last week, which is welcome. 

Local Associations will receive HQ support in continuing to press the case for smaller class sizes at LNCT level.

The key mitigation remains 2m physical distancing between staff and pupils and between all adults. I know that some members have expressed concern about the ability of pupils to adhere to such a rule but frankly, if it means a "don't cross" line across the front of the class, then that should happen. Clearly there are significant pedagogical challenges created by the 2m rule, and advice will be issued around those, but teachers shouldn’t compromise on this mitigation.

2m has significant implications for staff rooms and bases, also – which the scientists suggest are potentially locations where risk of transmission could be greatest.

In terms of physical distancing between pupils, the advice from the SAGE sub-committee on schools was shared with members last week. For younger pupils (Nursery and Primary) the recommendation was that physical distancing was not required, based on an analysis of all the current research; a similar recommendation was made for secondaries, although the report acknowledged that the evidence base for older pupils was not as conclusive.

Within CERG the EIS argued for a more cautious approach than that suggested by the sub-group and the final guidelines around physical distancing where possible, smaller and consistent groupings, and minimising contacts reflect this. Members will be concerned that these are not concrete enough and seeing them implemented in practical terms remains a challenge.

That is true and it will be an active workstream for us as schools reopen. Maintaining the 2m distancing between staff and pupils is the most effective personal protection for teachers, however, and it may be that it should be students and parents who should be most concerned at the lack of specificity around physical distancing amongst pupils.

There are clear directives in the Guidance on ventilation systems which will form part of the EIS risk assessment briefing.

I suspect that we will see an increasing use of face coverings amongst pupils. The guidelines make clear that the use of face coverings is acceptable for everyone in a school environment. I have received a number of emails arguing either for face coverings to be made mandatory or rejecting the same proposition. Some members have questioned why they are compulsory in areas such as shops but not in classrooms.

The Scottish Government answer to that relates to Test and Protect and the inability to identify random shoppers as opposed to those in the more controlled environment of the classroom.

Again – I would stress that the 2m physical distancing between teacher and pupil is the key mitigation which should apply.

Where close contact cannot be avoided, or proximity is for 15 minutes or more, the guidelines make clear that appropriate PPE or face coverings should be worn.

I mentioned Test and Protect. This scheme will be operational from Day 1 of schools re-opening. It is operated by Public Health Scotland (PHS), not the school, and will activate wherever a case is reported. Under the CERG guidelines teachers will be priority workers under the Test and Protect regulations. The EIS Executive, which meets tomorrow morning, will decide on pressing the Government to allow teachers access to testing without requiring to be displaying symptoms as we believe this would be an added reassurance to members around personal health.

Additionally, there will be surveillance and monitoring at three levels – community, specific school estate, and enhanced surveillance focusing primarily on staff. The view from the scientists was that this package would allow micro analysis of schools, and their catchment areas, and quick response actions where required.

Two recorded instances of infection within a school would be classed as an outbreak and lead to the involvement of a multi-agency incident management team. This, in turn, may lead to local school closures, although that would be a decision for the incident team rather than school management.

Many members who have been shielding or who are classed as vulnerable in some way, have contacted HQ with concerns around changes to public health advice which may impact on their individual situations. The EIS view remains that those who are currently shielding, or are vulnerable in some other way, should have a bespoke risk assessment carried out to assess what mitigations are required to ensure safe working, or if alternative arrangements need to be made. Such assessments will be clinically based. We would expect, and will be pushing for, school managements to be supportive of this approach. Specific health guidance in this area can be found here.

Colleagues, I haven't covered all of the issues in the Guidelines, but we will be updating our FAQ page on the website to try and respond to concerns which members will have.

You will note that we successfully argued for flexibility around schools operating a phased pupil return where required, to allow this to be managed safely and for schools to secure additional preparation time given the sudden switch from previous plans. This may vary across the country, but the Education Direction issued by the Scottish Government stipulates all pupils back by August 18th. The updated risk assessments and enhanced mitigations need to be in place before schools can safely have pupils back. 

The importance of pupils being back in school is not disputed by anyone, least of all by the EIS and its members, committed as we are to the education and welfare of children and young people, but this needs to be managed safely and we need to be alert to the fact that schools may have to close again, if the infection levels start to rise sharply.

We will continue to engage with Government and Councils moving forward.

Larry Flanagan

General Secretary