Fear Covid spreading faster than claimed in schools as teachers 'mark down' self-isolation

Fears have been raised that coronavirus is spreading faster than thought among children amid claims Scotland's schools are seeking to "mark down" the extent of Covid-19 self-isolation among pupils and that official figures should not be trusted.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told her daily briefing yesterday the benefits of schools staying open even in areas of Level Four restrictions "outweigh" the risk of transmission, echoing Education Secretary John Swinney's insistence earlier this week that they were "not significant for transmission of the virus".

Ms Sturgeon quoted a report by Public Health Scotland on Wednesday that showed that in the first nine weeks of term after schools went back in August there were 1,621 positive Covid-19 cases - 0.2 per cent of the 700,000 school pupils in Scotland.

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But at Holyrood yesterday, Scottish Greens MSP Ross Greer warned the extent of self-isolation was being underplayed and that there are growing concerns that vulnerable teachers are "terrified" for their safety and being "bullied" into turning up for work by council chiefs.

Schools have been back since August
Schools have been back since August

According to official figures there are around 2,500 staff currently off school in Scotland, along with around 26,000 pupils.

Mr Greer told MSPs this was an "undercount”, adding: “Pupils and staff who should be isolating are not and it's driving transmission.

"In at least one case teachers have told me of their school marking some self-isolating pupils as being absent for other reasons.

"I don't understand why, but it is happening - and the correspondence I'm getting is too widespread and too consistent to write-off as isolated incidents."

Teachers have even been told to "ignore" instructions from the Test and Protect app if they felt they are well, he said.

Mr Greer warned the description given by Government ministers about the situation in schools "does not match the reality" described by teachers.

"I can no longer totally believe the official statistics on self-isolation and transmission within our schools," Mr Greer said.

"Multiple teachers have described being prevented by senior managers from fully listing the number of pupils considered close contacts because the school wants to keep self-isolation numbers low.

"In one case a teacher who tested positive themselves listed their whole primary class as close contacts following the guidance. They were told they could pick no more than a third of the class."

He cited other cases where teachers were not informed when one of their pupils tested positive and were unable to identify either themselves or other pupils as close contacts.

"In a number of instances where staff themselves should be isolating, they are prevented from doing so because the school is worried about staffing pressures," he said.

Mr Greer said thousands of teachers have had requests to work from home rejected, with a number of councils insisting "extremely vulnerable" teachers turn up for work, including those with lung conditions like cystic fibrosis, asthma and heart conditions.

"These are teachers terrified with justification that going to work right now could kill them," he said.

"In an increasing number of cases, the behaviour of their employers has escalated to bullying and unions are now involved."

But Education Secretary John Swinney said updated school guidance published three weeks ago sets out the position for “clinically vulnerable staff”.

He said: “It makes it clear that councils should take clinical advice fully into account when agreeing appropriate mitigations with employees and whether it’s appropriate for employees to remain in school.”

Both the EIS and NASUWT teaching unions have called for blended learning models to be introduced in level four areas, with pupils attending classes on some days while learning from home the rest of the week.

But Ms Sturgeon said schools that will fall under level four restrictions from tomorrow will continue to stay open.

She said: “Where there were cases, that does not necessarily mean that Covid is transmitting in schools, and a small percentage of schools who tested positive supports other research showing that Covid cases in schools tend to come from the community, not from schools themselves."

She added: "At this time the benefits that young people gain from being in school outweigh the overall impact of schools on transmission rates.”

Ms Sturgeon said she did not dismiss the concerns of teachers “at all”.

"We’ve got to listen and try to address concerns, and we will keep doing that for as long as this pandemic lasts,” she said.

Interim Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dave Caeser said school Covid-19 cases reflected rates in the community and were not driven by in-school transmission.

He reiterated the positive impact on children of schools being open.

“We really want to take into account the long-term magnification of effect of children missing the interaction they have in school,” he said.

"It’s not just about the information they can get at school, it’s also about the interaction they get in school, which we know has a really profound effect on the way their brains develop and the way they develop skills, so it’s a really important balance.”

The First Minister was asked about school absences due to Covid-19 across the country, including at Auchmuty High School in Fife where 400 pupils are self-isolating.

The headteacher reported the school of 1,300 currently has around 50 per cent attendance, suggesting that a further 250 of the 1,300 pupils are off school.

Asked about the school, Ms Sturgeon said: “At any given time there will be a number of positive cases or contact with positive cases that are associated with a school, and that will lead to Test and Protect investigations. That’s part of what we are living through right now. Does that mean these schools are unsafe? No.

“Having people isolating will help stop the risk of a wider outbreak occurring and hopefully mean that that school can be as normal as possible and get back to normality as quickly as possible, with minimal disruption to education overall.

"Again, it comes down to the balance of judgement here, trying to keep schools open as normally as possible, because that is in the best interest of the overall body of the student population.”

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