School leaders in Scotland have welcomed reassurances that they will not have to work on Christmas Day – but say they need more details of how this will be guaranteed in practice.
The issue centres around the differing start dates of the holidays in Scotland, with some areas breaking up on Friday 18 December while others have to wait until the following week, and as late as Wednesday 23 December in some cases.
Hopes that the Christmas holidays would be expanded this week – including an earlier than planned finish for many schools – were dashed by the Scottish government yesterday, leading to concerns that some school leaders may be involved in contact tracing on Christmas Day.
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However, at the Scottish government's daily coronavirus briefing today, education secretary and deputy first minister John Swinney tried to provide some reassurance when asked about this.
He said that unions had raised concerns about areas where schools will not break up until the week leading up to Christmas Day – which falls on a Friday this year – and "the possibility that teachers, and particularly school leaders, may be involved in contact-tracing work".
Mr Swinney said: "Obviously, I appreciate that some of those [school] closing dates are getting quite close to Christmas Day."
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He said that the government was working with Public Health Scotland and the National Contact Tracing Centre to make sure "all school leaders, all school staff and all schoolteachers can get the break to which they are entitled over the festive season, and which I recognise they need, given how hard they've worked to keep education sustained for children and young people".
In response, Greg Dempster, general secretary of primary school leaders' body AHDS, said: "For some time AHDS has been highlighting the huge additional workload that contact tracing creates for school leaders – in evenings, weekends and holiday periods.
"In recent weeks our concern has naturally been focused on avoiding this during the upcoming Christmas period. It was disappointing that the government decided [yesterday] not to move to home learning or adjust holidays so that no school was open for in-person learning after 18 December.
"That said, the determination that alternative arrangements need to be found for contact tracing – to ensure school leaders actually get a proper break – was very welcome. However, saying is one thing, doing is another."
Mr Dempster added: "School leaders need their local authorities to offer them certainty that systems will be put in place that mean they will not be called upon during their holiday period. Some local authorities are already giving school leaders that certainty but all need to find a way to deliver that commitment. School leaders are running on empty."
When asked by Tes Scotland for more clarity about how school staff could be guaranteed a break on Christmas Day, the Scottish government said that education directors' body ADES was "collating information on the approaches being adopted across all local authorities".
It also highlighted a section in a letter sent yesterday by Mr Swinney to the Scottish Parliament's Education and Skills Committee, which states: "One issue where there is broad consensus is around the need for school staff to have their planned holidays without interruption due to the need to engage in contact tracing. We also want to avoid families being disturbed on or around Christmas Day due to any outbreaks which may involve a school prior to the start of the holiday period. In considering local arrangements, it will be vitally important that every effort is made to ensure that senior leadership teams and school staff get a proper break, and that the likelihood of staff being required to support contact tracing activities over the holiday period is minimised."
The letter also notes that "contact tracing activities may go back as far as seven days due to schools being complex environments", adding: "We understand that some local authorities have already made arrangements to address this risk, and we are now asking that similar arrangements are put in place as early as possible across all councils.
"While it is for local authorities, in consultation with their staff, to develop solutions that best suit local needs, options that have been implemented in some local authorities already include: (i) named individuals who have volunteered to be on-call for a local area in exchange for appropriate overtime payments, with access to information to support contact tracing if required; or (ii) putting in place central local authority teams who are on duty or on-call over the relevant period and can access the relevant information. The National Contact Tracing Centre have also indicated that they stand ready to support work to contact affected individuals in the event of a case being identified in a school during this period. Public Health Scotland will agree with each Local Health Protection Team on the preferred approach."
The education secretary, when asked at today's briefing about criticism from unions over the decision not to extend the school Christmas holidays, said: “I published the public health advice that I have received on this question, which comes down to one critical point – which is that we can minimise the transmission of the virus between young people if they are in an organised environment like a school as opposed to being in home or community settings.
“To essentially tip the balance and to put more young people into a community setting would be to go against that public health advice.
“So there’s no politics involved in this – it’s public health advice that I am following.”
Jane Peckham, from the Scotland branch of the NASUWT teaching union, said: "This announcement yesterday indicates yet again that government have no intention to use the promised contingency of blended learning, even in the highest Covid-19 level areas.
"Remote learning could have been a solution to maintaining education provision whilst reducing the risk of virus transmission in the run-up to Christmas.
"Ministers now need urgently to set out what arrangements should be in place to support those having to manage the Test and Protect system over Christmas."
She added: "It is imperative that the government provides a clear national plan which does not rely on any staff being expected to forfeit their well-deserved and much-needed break to undertake this work.”