Created on: 24 Jun 2020 | Last modified: 15 Jul 2021
Yesterday's statement in the Scottish Parliament by the Deputy First Minister (which can be read here) has sparked considerable debate, anxiety, frustration, confusion and even anger amongst many members. It has given rise to a host of questions, some of which I hope to answer in this communication but many of which are dependent on circumstances yet to unfold.
In the EIS press release, we acknowledged that improved public health conditions would impact on how schools might operate, but wishing something does not make it a reality, and given that we are barely into Phase 2 of moving out of lockdown, let alone in Phase 4, some significant caution needs to accompany yesterday's discussion and events in Parliament.
It is worth making clear that this was a political announcement from the Scottish Government – not an agreed outcome from CERG (Covid Education Recovery Group) which met only last week and discussed support for blended learning and the plight of NQTs but had no discussion around yesterday's statement.
Setting aside the political noise around the whole debate, however, and focusing on the detail of what has been said, the Scottish Government appears to have moved from the previous presumption that the level of Covid infection in Scottish society come August would require schools to reopen on a blended learning model, to one which suggests that the virus will have been suppressed sufficiently to allow schools to reopen with all pupils attending, albeit it with certain public health mitigations in place.
That is certainly a shift in planning emphasis from the Scottish Government. Essentially it is a "Maybes Aye; Maybes Naw" scenario, as ultimately the decision is dependent on where the level of Covid 19 infection will be in seven weeks time.
The critical EIS red-line that a return to school, in any model, can only happen when there is demonstrable evidence that the virus is under control remains in force. We will continue to demand from the Scottish Government, and its scientific advisors, a clear articulation of the indices and levels deemed critical to allowing school to reopen as outlined yesterday: for example, what R figure range needs to be in play; what level of new infections occurring daily is the required figure; what level of deaths being recorded and what numbers of ICU patients should we be seeing, etc.
Transparency in these areas is critical to public and teacher confidence in the safety of schools.
Our second red-line also continues to be applicable – that mitigations are in place to enable the implementation of public health guidance within schools.
The EIS is not convinced that no physical distancing between pupils is safe and we are absolutely certain that physical distancing between pupils and teachers remains essential. It may be that the actual distance, come August, will have been reduced from the current 2 metres if the level of infection has dropped further, but there cannot be a social distancing rule for outside of schools and a different one for inside classrooms.
We have raised already the issue of further mitigations potentially being required. At the moment we have asked for these to be considered without specifically advocating for them, and it may be that members will have different views which we will need to ascertain but, for example, why would it be mandatory to wear a face covering on public transport but not in a classroom? Why would a till assistant be protected by a perspex sheet but not a teacher?
These are issues, which need to be further examined.
Our third red line was around "Test Trace and Isolate". The Scottish Government has set up a Test and Protect capacity which appears, on paper, to be what is required, although as a result of lockdown and lower infection rates it has not really been road tested as yet. The EIS has raised the possibility of proactive testing for teachers, on a voluntary basis, as a further mitigation which should be looked at, in the way that it is for frontline NHS staff and care home workers. It does not prevent infection, but it does flag up where it has occurred leading to quicker control measures to prevent spread.
As part of the mitigation measures, irrespective of which model of schools reopening is deployed, we are clear that current protections for vulnerable groups should be extended into next session.
So – a lot of challenges to be resolved, colleagues.
Perhaps one of the biggest frustrations for members has been that the DFM announcement has come so close to the end of term, which is today in many places, and that having worked so hard to prepare for a blended learning model for reopening, teachers, including Heads and Deputes who will have had to take a lead in many areas, are now heading into a summer where uncertainty will be in the air with a whole set of other planning requiring to be tackled.
The Institute is clear that if schools are to reopen in August with full rolls, additional inset days at the start of term will be essential so that new risk assessments can be undertaken, additional health and safety mitigations put in place, and staff given time to adjust to the new arrangements.
We need to be absolutely clear that it would be a fundamental error on the part of the Scottish Government, our employers, parents, or indeed anyone, to believe that Covid 19 will have gone away in August and that it will be business as usual for schools. It will not be.
If that is a politically inconvenient truth for anyone, it nonetheless remains a truth.
As ever, the EIS will engage constructively in discussions, but our three red lines remain in place and we will not be compromising on the safety of staff or pupils, no matter who we upset.
Colleagues, I hope you enjoy a well-earned break, when it arrives. We do not usually issue communications during the holiday period, but we will do this summer as I think it is important that you are kept informed. We will also update through the website and social media.
Stay safe and best wishes