Councils have been told to make classroom ventilation and air cleansing “absolute priorities” after teacher sickness absences due to Covid hit a fresh record high for the school year.
Amid renewed pressure on Nicola Sturgeon following claims her ministers are planning to “chop up class doors” as an airflow-boosting measure, union bosses said the latest statistics were “continuing proof” that “maximum mitigations” are needed.
And they stressed they wanted to see better progress towards making the coronavirus vaccine more widely available to P1-7 pupils.
Figures show 1,772 teachers were absent on Tuesday because they had Covid or its symptoms. This is the highest total recorded since August 24 last year. A further 861 teaching staff were absent because they were self-isolating, shielding, quarantining or looking after another individual affected by the virus.
Such high absence rates are likely to put schools under huge pressure, particularly at S4-6 level as young people undertake vital practical work and the preparation necessary for exam success. Access to supply teachers is currently said to be very poor.
Larry Flanagan, general secretary at the EIS union, said: “The high Covid absence rate amongst teachers is continuing proof that maximum mitigations are required in school and that improvements in ventilation, and air cleaning, need to be absolute priorities for local authorities.
“Whilst vaccinations have been offered to primary pupils with additional vulnerabilities, we have yet to see any progress on a more general programme for younger pupils.
“Given how little we know about the potential implications of long-Covid, this, frankly, is disappointing.”
Meanwhile, political opponents have urged Ms Sturgeon to halt plans that could see school doors “chopped off” at the bottom to improve ventilation.
The Scottish Conservatives said the First Minister should think again after an intervention from fire crews. A Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) spokesperson said late on Thursday night: “SFRS would strongly advise duty holders to make contact with our Fire Safety Enforcement Teams before undertaking any actions which would have an impact on fire safety arrangements within their premises.”
The comment came after Ms Sturgeon defended government policy, saying work to support natural airflow could include “basic rectification of the structure of classrooms”.
Responding to a challenge from Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross during First Minister’s Questions, she told MSPs: “When you’re trying to improve ventilation in a room, there’s a number of things you need to do. Partly that can be about air filtration to purify the air. Partly that is about ventilation, so mechanical ventilation systems… but, partly, it’s about taking measures to ensure that the natural flow of air in a room is maximised.
“So, if you have doors or windows that are not enabling that natural flow of air in the way you would want it to, then it strikes me as basic common sense that you would take measures to rectify that.
“And, so, what we’ve done is give additional money to local authorities to allow them to take whatever steps – air filtration systems, mechanical ventilation or basic rectification of the structure of classrooms – to improve the natural flow of air. That strikes me as basic common sense.”
The remarks have been criticised by Meghan Gallacher, Scottish Conservative Shadow Minister for Children and Young People. She said: “Nicola Sturgeon has to listen to experts and halt her frankly absurd plans to chop up classroom doors.
“The First Minister has to stop digging in and recognise her proposal is illogical and even potentially dangerous, according to fire safety experts. Nicola Sturgeon dismissed valid concerns from a retired firefighter yesterday and claimed her plan was ‘common sense’. She must listen now that Scotland’s fire service is advising caution.
“She should really be writing to every school in Scotland to make sure they listen to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, and not her words at First Minister’s Questions.” Ms Gallacher added: “Our schools need more air filters to protect against Covid. They don’t need classroom doors chopped up.”
Scottish ministers announced recently that funding of up to £5 million would be available to help schools and early learning centres (ELCs) improve ventilation.
COSLA, the body that represents councils, has been approached for comment.