Getting back to the grindstone is now more daunting than ever

Schools returning from their October break are coming back to a much riskier environment than in September – and vulnerable teachers are worried, says Emma Seith
30th October 2020, 12:01am
Covid In Scottish Schools
Emma Seith

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Getting back to the grindstone is now more daunting than ever

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/getting-back-grindstone-now-more-daunting-ever

Today marks the end of the first week that Scottish schools are back en masse from their October break. The holidays are over now for teachers and pupils, and it's back to the grindstone.

For some, that will have meant that Monday presented the usual post-holiday challenge, when the effort to remove apparently leaden bedclothes seems so gargantuan you wonder how you will ever summon up the strength - but then, somehow, you do. For other teachers, though, going back through the school gates will have been even more onerous: many are now genuinely afraid.

A survey by the EIS teaching union has identified 16 per cent of teachers who responded being at heightened risk from Covid-19, and 4 per cent in a shielding category. One teacher told Tes Scotland recently that the October break was like a beacon of hope: his goal was to keep going until then because surely, he reasoned, with the number of cases of Covid rising, schools would be closed.

That, of course, has not happened, and Scottish schools remain open. This presented a crunch point for that particular teacher, who is at high risk from the coronavirus. He said: "I was clinging on to the October holidays hoping for blended learning but in the absence of that I'll be going to see my doctor. I can't cope with this."

When education secretary John Swinney decided in July to reopen schools full time, he was careful to build the case on data, given that the sudden move away from blended learning saw him accused of pandering to parental pressure. Confirming in the Scottish Parliament on 23 July that pupils would be back full time after summer, he said: "In Scotland, the infection rate in the general population is currently reducing by 30 per cent each week, which means that there are now only around 700 infectious people in Scotland, compared with 1,300 four weeks ago and 5,000 at the end of May."

On Thursday 23 July, 23 positive cases were recorded; on Thursday 22 October, 1,206 positive cases were recorded. Of course, we are now carrying out far more tests, but suffice to say Scotland is no longer in the same position as when schools started to return on 11 August.

The World Health Organization considers a pandemic to be under control when less than 5 per cent of samples return a positive result for over two weeks. That's the position Scotland was in at the end of July, but that positivity rate began to increase steadily in September and went over 5 per cent on 19 September. At the time of writing, it is at around 19 per cent.

However, the figures also tell us that the threat from Covid varies in different parts of the country, and current restrictions reflect this. But while bars and restaurants are closed in some areas, pupils attend school in the same way irrespective of whether they live in Glasgow - where the seven-day rate per 100,000 at the start of this week was 288 - or Highland, where it was 19.1.

Even the highest level of the new five-stage alert system launched by first minister Nicola Sturgeon last week will not result in automatic school closures. There will always be "a degree of judgement" involved, she said.

For this to be fair, the risk to clinically vulnerable school staff needs to be assessed as circumstances around them change, and this must be applied consistently across the country. Yet, some teachers report positive experiences, while others say the advice of doctors and occupational health staff is being ignored and they were told to come into school or take sick leave.

More guidance is expected for councils from the Covid-19 Education Recovery Group about how to support clinically vulnerable staff. Let's hope it leads to improvements - but for now, many teachers are scared and in need of support and understanding.

@Emma_Seith

This article originally appeared in the 30 October 2020 issue under the headline "Getting back to the grindstone is now more daunting than ever"

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