'Safety strikes' on the cards over school Covid fears

Concerns raised over use of Covid tracing apps in schools, while education secretary insists that schools are 'very safe'
11th November 2020, 3:38pm


'Safety strikes' on the cards over school Covid fears

John Swinney: Our Schools Are Fundamentally Very Safe

Scotland's education secretary has said that schools remain "very safe", despite thousands of pupils and students being off as a result of rising numbers of Covid-19 cases and concerns that teachers are not receiving the same protection as employees in other workplaces.

John Swinney made his comments after the EIS, Scotland's biggest teaching union, raised the prospect of "safety strikes" by teachers. Mr Swinney, who is also deputy first minister, was asked in a BBC Radio Scotland interview this morning whether he agreed that, if similar trends were seen in pubs and restaurant, they would close.

He replied that "what's important is that we look at the sources of the infections" and that "actually a very small proportion of positive cases relate back to education".

Background: Covid-19 pupil absence peaks in nine Scottish councils

Sturgeon: Schools not 'untouchable' but goal is to keep them open

Research: Pupil attendance rate in Scotland highest in the UK

News: Teachers 'regarded as expendable' in new Covid system

Today, journalist, FE lecturer and former schoolteacher James McEnaney tweeted that he had been sent an email from Aberdeen City Council instructing teachers to switch off Scotland's Covid tracing app while in school.

I have today been sent an email from a teacher showing Aberdeen City Council instructing teachers to switch off the Track & Trace app while in school. They say that this advice has come from "Public Health colleagues". pic.twitter.com/RyRZXzUxd3

- James McEnaney (@MrMcEnaney) November 11, 2020

He added: "This (finally) backs up what I have been told by numerous teachers - that self-isolation advice is being overruled even when staff have been within 2m of people who either show symptoms or test positive.

"The reason for this is simple: a political decision has been made to keep schools open at (almost) any cost, so contact that would lead to isolation in other workplaces is being treated differently in schools (otherwise they'd need to close).

"One consequence of this is teachers being put under enormous pressure not to self-isolate, and being blamed when they do need to. I've been getting messages about this for weeks."

Aberdeen City Council said that staff were not asked to turn off the app, but to disable it.

A spokesperson said: "We have been working closely with Public Health [Scotland] officials locally and have agreed an enhanced level of PPE equipment for teachers and classroom assistants which is above that in the national guidance. Discussions also been carried out with trade unions.

"The health, safety and wellbeing of our staff and pupils is our highest priority and we are happy to provide additional medical-grade PPE to our teachers and classroom assistants who may require to be within two metres of a pupil or member of staff.

"We had a positive case in a school and we undertook an investigation and Public Health also made an assessment. The use of medical-grade PPE by staff resulted in them not being identified as a close contact. 

"Some time later, the app sent a message to the same staff and asked them to self-isolate.  Public Health advised that staff disable the app whilst in school. We passed that advice onto schools whilst we await an update from the Scottish government, who we advised of the issue on Tuesday evening."

Teachers spoken to by Tes Scotland in another part of Scotland said that there had been an issue where teachers kept their phones in adjacent lockers. This meant the app had been activated when it would not have been otherwise for all of the teachers involved, had they kept their phones with them at all times.

As a result, the local authority advised teachers to turn off phones when they were not on their person, but some headteachers had gone further and told staff to turn off phones at all times in school.

When asked about the Aberdeen situation at the Scottish government's coronavirus daily briefing today, first minister Nicola Sturgeon said that the app should be kept switched on.

Asked about suggestion teachers in Aberdeen may have been asked to switch off https://t.co/JFDBsNgid4 app, FM says phones may have been in proximity while not being carried, but people should keep their phones on them with the app switched on

Latest: https://t.co/8aPCffzxLr pic.twitter.com/BodR6FnJAP

- BBC Scotland News (@BBCScotlandNews) November 11, 2020

The EIS teaching union said it was acceptable to turn off the app when teachers were leaving mobile phones in secure lockers or staff bases whilst they were teaching elsewhere. However, it saw no reason for the app to be switched off if a teacher had their phone with them.

Yesterday, the EIS started a survey of members on Covid safety measures in Scotland's schools.

General secretary Larry Flanagan said: "Teachers across Scotland have continued to work throughout the Covid-19 pandemic to deliver a sound educational experience for young people across the country. This has brought significant challenges in terms of seeking to meet the educational needs of all young people while also ensuring that any risk of potential Covid-19 infection is reduced.

"With Covid infections on the rise across the country, we are again consulting with our members to seek their views on the effectiveness of Covid safety measures and on their willingness or otherwise to support 'safety strikes' should they be necessary."

Mr Flanagan added: "The EIS executive believes that Level 4 of the Scottish Government Strategic Framework should trigger blended or remote learning contingencies. These contingencies need to be considered even on a local basis and we are calling for a discussion on how this should be done. We also believe that there must be full transparency around the enhanced school surveillance data and further consideration of regular proactive testing of staff and pupils, where schools remain open."

The EIS survey is specifically seeking teachers' views on issues such as:

  • the default position on schools remaining open; 
  • willingness to support industrial action if the government refuses a move to blended or remote learning at Level 4; and
  • the concerns of teachers in vulnerable groups or without permanent contracts.

When the education secretary was asked by the BBC this morning if he could be sure about his statement that "a very small proportion of positive cases relate back to education", Mr Swinney said: "Yes, we can be, because that's what people say in the contact tracing responses. The data sits at around about 4-5 per cent of the number of positive cases that have got some connection with education.

"Now, when you then look into the particular outbreaks that take place that affect school pupils or staff, we tend to find that those are cases where it's been an external community transmission that has happened, there's very little evidence of in-school transmission.

"So I think the fundamental point is that our schools are very safe: the mitigation measures that we have insisted upon being in place are being followed and must be followed in all circumstances, to make sure that our schools are safe for staff and pupils."

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