Scots teachers back strike action over Covid safety fears

Two-thirds of Scots teachers say they would back industrial action, including strikes, amid safety concerns about the Covid-19 transmission risk in classrooms.

Scots schools returned in August
Scots schools returned in August

But Nicola Sturgeon today insisted that the "balance of judgement" is that youngsters are safer in the classroom than if schools shut down again.

The outcome of a wide-ranging survey released by teaching union the EIS today shows that 31% of teachers indicate that they feel ‘safe’ or ‘very safe’ in schools under the current COVID safety measures.

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At level 4, the majority of respondents (51%) believe that remote learning should be introduced on safety grounds – although 45% support either a blended learning approach (34%) or maintaining current arrangements but with additional safety mitigations in place (11%).

Two-thirds of respondents (66%) also indicated a willingness to support industrial action, including strike action, in protest at failure to move to blended or remote learning in higher risk (Level 4) areas.

EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan said: "It is clear that a significant number of teachers (43%) do not feel safe working in schools under the existing arrangements. This feeling of being at risk is particularly heightened for teachers in secondary schools, for teachers in higher risk areas under Level 3 or Level 4 restrictions, and for teachers in vulnerable groups or who live with or provide care for vulnerable family members.”

Mr Flanagan continued: "There is clear support for moving to industrial action in higher risk areas to protest where teachers feel that the measures required to keep schools safe have not been delivered."

The First Minister told the daily Coronavirus briefing today that safety is at the forefront of decision-making. But she added: "Young people spent four months out of school earlier this year.

"That's not good and it wasn't good for them, so we're trying to avoid that happening again. But that doesn't mean that we're not interested in the wider issues of safety around transmission in and around schools."

Ms Sturgeon said guidance on safety in schools has been under constant review.

But she added: "The balanced judgement is that the harm to young people that would come from being out of school again for a period of time would be greater than any harms associated with the virus in or around schools."

The EIS survey found that almost two-thirds (64%) of teachers either ‘supported’ (48%) or ‘fully supported’ (16%) the Scottish Government decision to prioritise keeping schools open, where possible.

And at level 3, there is clear support (86%) for schools remaining open, although just under half of respondents (48%) believe this should be on a blended learning model to enable physical distancing.

The survey also included a sample of comments from members.

One teacher stated: “My fear is that I am bringing in hundreds of potential contacts into my home. My children attend a different secondary school, and they are also bringing hundreds of contacts into the home every day.

"Despite the mitigations, pupils are not wearing face coverings as recommended in the guidance and this has the potential to infect others as social distancing between pupils is impossible in schools. The added stress that this is causing is not sustainable to deal with.”

Another stated: “It appears like we don’t matter and are totally replaceable within our school roles. However, the stress COVID has caused and the extreme preparation I do for my class before arriving, whilst there and once home is getting ridiculous! My young family is suffering because of it as I’m so tired! The government forget that we are not replaceable to our own kids and families.”

MSPs at Holyrood last week voted to back a set of ‘Safe Schools’ proposals brought forward by the Scottish Greens, calling on the Government to protect clinically vulnerable school staff, recruit an additional 2,000 teachers and introduce regular voluntary testing for staff and senior pupils.

Greens education spokesman Ross Greer said: “The Scottish Government has made frontline school staff feel expendable, consistently ignoring their concerns throughout this crisis. Last week though, Parliament agreed to the Greens’ Safe Schools proposals, including that regular testing be introduced to schools immediately. Today’s survey results show just how urgent that is.

“Our proposals also included protections for clinically vulnerable staff but unfortunately I am still receiving reports from extremely vulnerable teachers in Tier 4 areas who have been told they must turn up to school this week, despite their doctors advising otherwise. It’s time that Mr Swinney took teachers’ concerns seriously, and follow Parliament’s instruction that he make our schools safe for teachers, staff and pupils.”

Liberal Democrats education spokeswoman Beatrice Wishart said that "serious and legitimate" concerns raised by teachers in recent weeks have been dismissed by ministers.

"I wrote to the Education Secretary last month to request he imports the framework used in Denmark, where schools have to follow the doctors’ orders on working arrangements," Ms Wishart said.

"That was ignored, and now the SNP Government is adopting the same response to being defeated at Parliament.

“The Scottish Government need to ensure that there is a Scotland-wide safety net, with a clear option to work from home for the people who need it. Nobody should be forced to choose between their health and their job security.

“The Scottish Government’s failure to acknowledge these concerns risks causing more damage and disruption to the pupils, teachers and parents who have already gone through the mill this year."

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