Covid Scotland: Schools may need remote learning to ‘protect education’

“Short periods” of remote learning may be needed to address disruption to education caused by the Omicron variant, a union leader has warned.

The remarks from Larry Flanagan, general secretary at the EIS, come as new statistics show a big rise in the number of teachers who have been absent with confirmed Covid-19 or its symptoms.

According to data, 897 were affected on Tuesday this week – up from 717 on December 7. The same period also saw the number of pupils who were not in school because of a Covid-related sickness increase from 4,290 to 5,132.

Meanwhile, new guidance says schools should be ready for a range of scenarios given current uncertainty over the future path of the virus. These include “full remote learning” for all pupils, with “school buildings closed”.

It also allows education staff identified as close contacts of positive cases to “volunteer not to self-isolate”. However, such individuals would have to meet strict criteria. Among the requirements are evidence of a negative PCR test, not having Covid symptoms and confirmation that the second vaccination was received more than 14 days previously.         

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned yesterday that the Omicron variant had become the dominant strain in Scotland. “The tsunami is now starting to hit us,” she added.

READ MORE: Omicron hits schools as teacher and pupil absences surge

Commenting on the latest absence data, Mr Flanagan said: “There is no doubt that Omicron presents a threat to the continuity of education, particularly if it leads to significant staff absence through infections or selfisolation requirements.”

National figures reveal the total number of learners not in school for reasons connected with Covid-19 jumped from 19,402 to 31,303 between December 10 and Tuesday this week.

The surge has been fuelled largely by self-isolation. However, statistics also suggest many parents are choosing to keep children away from school as a precautionary measure, with 3,755 pupils affected on Tuesday. The figure on December 10 was 976.

HeraldScotland: Covid-related pupil absences have been increasing, data shows.Covid-related pupil absences have been increasing, data shows.

Meanwhile, the overall number of teachers absent with confirmed Covid or its symptoms, or absent because they were self-isolating, isolating due to instructions from contact tracers, shielding, quarantining or looking after someone with the illness, hit 2,048 on Tuesday. The total marks an increase of more than 500 on December 7’s figure and is the highest since the start of the current school session in August.

There are growing concerns that, as well as generating health risks, the new variant’s spread could have a big impact on school activity in the crucial weeks after Christmas. The December-March period is when many are likely to be sitting prelims or doing practical assignments, and is also vital for in-depth exam preparation.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon confirms early school closures not planned as Omicron cases rise

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), schools, colleges and training providers are currently working towards the 2022 diet with significant modifications to course assessments. SQA bosses have also said that, in the event of a major new hit to teaching and learning, their agency will provide additional support to help candidates revise. They indicated previously that this could include giving pupils advance sight of topics or areas that will be assessed and allowing them to take support material, such as formula sheets, into the exam hall.

If ministers cancel exams because of public health restrictions, the SQA has said evidence obtained through normal in-year assessment to determine learner estimates can be used when deciding provisional results. However, there are worries that Omicron-fuelled rates of pupil and teacher absence could make gathering this information much more difficult.

HeraldScotland: Teacher absence figures are also up.Teacher absence figures are also up.

Mr Flanagan told The Herald that “short periods” of remote learning might be needed to address specific school situations. He added: “The EIS is clear that this is how any such challenge should be met rather than the Scottish Government’s suggestions that teachers who are close contacts might ‘volunteer’ to leave self-isolation. To us that would put at risk colleagues who are not self-isolating and indeed pupils in classes.

“The Government today has warned people to stay at home to protect their Christmas but earlier this week it refused to even consider moving schools to remote learning for only a couple of days next week to achieve the same aim. Teacher morale is low at the present time.”

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon confirms Omicron now dominant strain

A spokeswoman stressed the Scottish Government was not considering school closures. She added: “Protecting the education of children and young people remains a top priority. National school closures would only be an absolute last resort.

“Covid-19 protections will be reviewed on a daily basis due to the rapid increase in cases of the Omicron variant.”

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