Nicola Sturgeon has been told new self-isolation rules risk sending teacher infection rates higher, as Covid forces hundreds of staff to stay away from schools at the start of the new term.
Early signs of pressure come after the First Minister announced a policy change aimed at striking a balance between reducing disruption to critical services and breaking chains of transmission.
Companies and the public sector are currently grappling with significant labour shortages caused by the rapidly spreading Omicron variant.
The new arrangement means asymptomatic people who test positive for Covid on a lateral flow device (LFD) will no longer be expected to get a confirmatory PCR result.
Self-isolation can also be cut from 10 to seven days if individuals have no fever and test negative for the virus on an LFD on days six and seven. Close contacts, including household contacts, of a positive case can avoid quarantine if they have had at least three vaccine doses, have no symptoms, and continue to test negative using daily LFDs.
READ MORE: Pupils told to learn at home
However, leaders at the EIS union are concerned and say the change could lead to an increase in cases.
They spoke out as schools reopen to pupils following the Christmas break. Although uncertainty remains over infection and absence rates in the coming weeks, figures provided by some local authorities indicate pressures are already building.
In South Lanarkshire, around 3600 children were absent on Wednesday because of Covid or self-isolation. This equates to eight per cent of pupils in secondary, primary and nursery classes across the region. Council bosses also confirmed 236 teachers were absent for Covid-related reasons, including 82 who were self-isolating.
Education leaders in West Lothian said around 150 teachers – approximately 5% of the teaching workforce – were absent yesterday because they had Covid or its symptoms, or were self-isolating.
East Ayrshire Council told The Herald that, as of Wednesday, 71 teachers either had Covid or were selfisolating. It added that four primary schools had shifted to partial remote learning for a small number of classes. Fife Council said there were 85 coronavirus-related teacher absences.
Larry Flanagan, EIS general secretary, said: “It is inevitable that higher levels of community infection will be reflected in higher levels of Covid-related absence from school. Schools will undoubtedly struggle to cope with teacher absences, which could lead to short periods of remote learning being required.
“It remains to be seen if the change to self-isolation rules makes a material difference as staff with symptoms or positive tests will still have to isolate and, as the First Minister admitted, there is a risk to ending self-isolation early – it’s possible that this could simply lead to more positive cases.”
Meanwhile, senior figures at School Leaders Scotland (SLS) have said they want ministers and the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) to move towards the contingency plan that would give teachers and students advance notice of some topics that will feature in exams.
Jon Reid, rector at Larbert High and SLS president, told TES magazine: “It is unfathomable that the government and the SQA would wait until March to tell us if we are moving to scenario two when teachers could be prioritising the work now, instead of trying to cover the whole course.”
An SQA spokeswoman said: “Along with our partners across the education system, including School Leaders Scotland, we continue to closely monitor the educational impact of the pandemic through the Covid-19 Education Recovery Group.
“The significant modifications we have already made to course assessments are designed to support learners by taking account of the ongoing disruption to their education.
“As schools return, if there is significantly more disruption across the country than that experienced last year then we will take further steps to help learners by providing support for exam revision where possible.
“If this happens it is important that information is provided at the right time to support revision. Providing this advice too far in advance may have the negative consequence of narrowing the teaching of courses, which would be detrimental to learners’ knowledge and understanding and to the next steps in their learning.”