Vulnerable teachers – some of whom have been told by doctors if they catch coronavirus they are likely to die – say that they feel like they are “being treated like cannon fodder” and “thrown to the wolves” by the Scottish government and councils.
The teachers told Tes Scotland that – while some councils were allowing staff to work from home – others were “point-blank” refusing, even when supporting letters from occupational health professionals or doctors were provided.
Tes Scotland can also reveal that a group of 300 teachers classed as clinically vulnerable, or who were previously in the shielding category, has written to the Covid-19 Education Recovery Group – chaired by the education secretary John Swinney – arguing for “a consistent approach” for all vulnerable staff in schools.
Coronavirus: Teachers' Covid fears 'not taken seriously enough'
They say there are “huge discrepancies between individual council interpretations of guidance”.
They write: “In some cases, medical advice to remain working from home has been overruled by HR/headteachers, whilst in other regions, working from home agreements have been reached. Why is there not a consistent approach offered to all staff? Why would medical recommendations be overruled by non-medically qualified people?”
The teachers want “clearer and consistent guidelines across all regions”.
They add: “Since when did it become acceptable to expect school staff to risk their own health and the health of their own families in delivering education?”
The teachers made contact with Tes Scotland following a request to hear about vulnerable teachers experience of the return to school.
A flood of messages, tweets and emails ensued.
A teacher with cystic fibrosis and a lung function of 35 per cent said that her council had "point-blank" refused to allow her to work from home, despite a letter from her consultant supporting such a move, as well as advice from occupational health.
"It is a horrendous situation, I am anxious in school and anxious about not being in school," she said.
Meanwhile, a pregnant teacher who suffers from fibromyalgia said that she had asked to work from home but the council had refused. She had been off with stress but was back in school. She said her biggest fear was the impact "long Covid" could have on her health and her “ability to be a mum to my baby”.
Another teacher – who said they were at high risk from Covid-19 – said school staff were “scared and exhausted” and that three colleagues had put in for early retirement.
The teacher said: “We are being treated like cannon fodder. Local authorities are overturning doctor certificates despite the government guidance and the money they have been given by the government to help protect vulnerable teachers.”
A teacher who said she was in the “Clinically Extremely Vulnerable” – or CEV – group said she was initially supportive of First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s handling of the pandemic but said she now felt Ms Sturgeon was willing to “throw teaching and other staff to the wolves” to appease parents. Parental pressure was seen by many as a key factor in the government’s move away from blended learning to full-time schooling.
Some of the teachers said they had been hoping that if they kept going until the October break blended learning would be introduced owing to the rising number of coronavirus cases in Scotland, but that never transpired.
Tough new restrictions coincided with the October break in many areas due to concern over the rising number of coronavirus cases. However, the government has made it clear that – along with saving lives – keeping schools open is its top priority.
Some teachers reported positive experiences – one teacher said they had received all the help and support they could possibly want; another told Tes Scotland they had never returned to the classroom and had been allowed to work from home.
One member of the vulnerable and ex-shielding teachers group said they were “one of the lucky ones”. They had been permitted to work from home – although their council had initially challenged this recommendation from a doctor – but were back in school owing to mitigations being put in place and low levels of the virus in their area.
They said, though, that some members of the group had had “horrendous experiences” and had been told “to get in the classroom or sign off sick”.
The teacher added: “Councils across Scotland are advertising for remote learning teachers when they refuse to allow clinically extremely vulnerable (not sick) teachers to work from home.”
The EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan told Tes Scotland that some councils were taking “a hard line”, while others were allowing vulnerable teachers to work from home. He reiterated that the EIS was prepared to take out grievances and to take legal action on behalf of teachers if medical advice was being overturned by local authorities and schools.
Mr Flanagan said: “Some councils have taken the position that teaching is a frontline job and if you can’t be in front of the class you have to sign off sick. But the point is most shielding teachers are not sick, they would be capable of working if it weren’t for the Covid risk.
“We are clear that if the medical advice is there – a doctor’s letter or an occupational health report – and it indicates the mitigation is working remotely then councils have to agree that and they have to ensure cover is in place for that teacher and agree on a work programme for that teacher.
“It is not for councils or headteachers to overturn medical advice. If the medical advice is that someone has to work remotely they have to be accommodated.”