Education Secretary John Swinney, said all school staff can be tested “on demand” if they’re concerned they’ve been at risk from infection.
He said the step had been taken to provide “additional reassurance” after a survey by the Educational Institute of Scotland found that only one in five teachers was confident that schools were safe to work in.
Mr Swinney also said he was continuing to review advice on the wearing of face coverings in high schools, which is not being mandated currently, as there are concerns that older pupils may well spread and contract the virus.
Describing today as a “date I’ll never forget” with pupils returning after schools closed through lockdown five months ago, he laid out plans for testing in Parliament, highlighting a summary paper from the Chief Medical Officer Gregor Smith on the latest science in respect of Covid-19 and schools.
He also repeated that councils were receiving £80 million to recruit 1400 additional teachers and staff to reduce class sizes and allow for easier social distancing.
"Lockdown’s grip was signalled most powerfully by the closure of our schools, nothing else captured the seriousness of the pandemic than the fact we were forced to send children home from school. That is why this week marks a milestone, not just in our children's lives, but in our nation’s recovery from Covid - this week we reopen our scshools.
“I know some people are anxious, which is not surprising… everyone knows the virus is still out there. Last week’s EIS survey saw responsed from almost 30,000 teachers, they confirmed 60% of teacher supported the decision to reopen schools but a similar figure expressed anxiety and a lack of confidence that significant mitigations had taken place to make them feel safe.”
He added: “Ensuring the highest quality education for our young people, in a safe environment, is our absolute priority. Thanks to our success in suppressing Covid-19 in Scotland, it is now safe for schools to return. Guidance, informed by the latest scientific advice, sets out the range of measures schools should take to minimise the risk of the spread of the virus.
“We know concerns still exist and I want teachers and staff to not just be safe, but to feel safe, in school and in nursery. Bluntly this is a new and frightening virus and it’s entirely reasonable our staff want to know what we are doing to keep them safe, and more than that I know they’re horrified that anything they do might risk the health of young people in their care, so today I can announce that we are extending the testing programme.
“Teachers, nursery and school staff concerned they may have been exposed to the virus can now be tested on demand even if they show no symptoms. This is to provide additional reassurance to teachers and other staff as children return.”
Mr Swinney said the "most important factor” for reopening schools was the level of Covid in the community and that, the Aberdeen cases aside, the national trend was "remarkable”, with a reduction in new cases from 780 on May 15 to 25 on July 31 and a similar fall in the estimated number of infections from 10,000 in mid-May to 275 at the end of July.
He said there had also been no Covid-related deaths in Scotland for people under 18 and less than one per cent had invovved people under 45. He added: “No cases linked to any school hubs which have been open throughout the pandemic. However we cannot drop our guard, there will be increased mitigating measures such as enhanced hand hygiene, more frequent cleaning regimes and social distancing by and from adults.
“We're also putting in place a programme of enhanced surveillance to be able to monitor progress and react quickly to developments on the ground. Full application in schools of test and protect, outbreak management and rapid testing for all those with symptoms. Schools will be able to register so staff with symtpms can be referred for priority access to testing as key workers as well as being able to self-refer. There will be close ongoing monitoring of the virus in schools.
"We will have a single clear data set to track progress over time and it will be enhanced as we introduce new measures including a new linkage study which will allow us track and compare risk in differnet staff groups from next month, a new programme of serology testing to measure, over time, levels of antibodies in time, and testing from sample of schools to cast more light on transmission and prevelence from older pupils and staff from October.
These will allow uis to make rapid adjustments inlight of evidence on the groupnd whether to tighten measures nationally or locally or to reintroduce currently restricted activities such as assemblies or singing.”
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