Nearly one third of all schools in Scotland reported at least one positive case of Covid-19 among pupils in the first two weeks of term, new figures show.
A freedom of information request by the PA news agency submitted to Public Health Scotland (PHS) shows that 1,455 schools in Scotland recorded a positive case between 16 August and 27 August, the first two weeks of term.
According to Scottish government figures released in December, there are 5,063 schools (including early years settings) registered in the country.
Covid vaccine: Vaccination of 12- to 15-year-olds to start on Monday
While it is not clear how many of the cases in schools were contracted there as opposed to in the community, the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has repeatedly said the return of schools in Scotland contributed to the spike in Covid-19 cases seen in recent weeks, which she said this week has shown signs of dissipating.
Meanwhile, PHS data also shows that nearly 15 per cent of cases during the same time period could be linked to an educational setting, a nursery, school, college or university, although higher education had not yet returned for the new term during the period the data covers.
Rise in Covid cases since schools' return
A total of 8,113 people who tested positive during the first two weeks of the school term reported having been in an educational setting in the seven days before they developed symptoms – 14.2 per cent of the cases reported during that time.
The official attendance and absence data for the new school year started being recorded on Thursday 19 August, when 7,435 pupils were absent as a result of the pandemic. By Tuesday 7 September, 38,361 pupils were off school for Covid-19 related reasons.
The Scottish government has said that if it is safe to do so, it plans to go ahead with the 2022 exam diet. However, it has said two contingencies are in place – if there is further disruption to education there could be more modifications to courses and assessments. This could include students getting advance notice of topics that will feature in the exams.
If the exams cannot go ahead due to restrictions brought about by the pandemic then teachers will once again be responsible for grading students.
This week the Scottish government announced that 12- to 15-year-olds would be able to get the Covid vaccine from Monday onwards. The vaccine will be delivered in the first instance via appointments and drop-in centres, not schools.
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, said: “Since pupils and staff returned to schools last month, we have seen a substantial increase in Covid infection rates across the country.
“There have been significant outbreaks linked to schools, with Covid-related absence rates amongst pupils and teachers at record high levels.
“This highlights the continuing need for appropriate safety mitigations in our schools to reduce the infection risk, and also confirms the importance of continuing the vaccination programme, including the planned roll-out of the availability of vaccines for 12- to 15-year-olds.”
Despite the new figures, Conservative education spokesperson Oliver Mundell said it was important that schools remained open, but that measures are put in place to limit the spread.
“An increase in cases was expected when schools returned. But the SNP-Green government needs to ensure that they are striking a balance of mitigating the risk of case numbers against causing further disruption to education," he added.
“The World Health Organisation and the children’s commissioner are clear that for young people’s mental health and wellbeing, and for some their safety, the number one priority must be to keep schools open.
“The SNP-Green government needs to guarantee that every robust measure is in place to keep our schools as safe as possible from being a place where the virus is transmitted.
“That will ensure that in-person learning can continue and pupils will hopefully return to a normal learning experience as quickly as possible.”
Both the Scottish Greens and the Lib Dems said the decision to offer vaccines to children aged between 12 and 15, announced by the first minister earlier this week, would be vital to keep youngsters safe.
“There is a real risk of disruption to pupils’ education if these outbreaks are not swiftly crushed,” said Lib Dem education spokesperson Willie Rennie.
“That’s why it will be so important to encourage young people to come forward and get their vaccines.”
The Greens' education spokesperson, Ross Greer, said: “The decision to offer Covid-19 vaccinations to most secondary school pupils will certainly help to reduce this disruption, if its roll-out is swift.
“However, the government really needs to get to grips with the slow progress on improving ventilation in schools, a matter I’ve repeatedly raised with the first minister.
“We must do everything we can to make our schools safe for both pupils and staff.”