Our teachers deserve our support - The Educational Institute of Scotland

The impact of Covid on Scotland’s schools has been significant, not least in the manner in which the deep inequalities in our society have been exposed. If before the pandemic there was an ambition to address the poverty associated attainment gap, the burning necessity for doing so should be clear to everyone who cares about Scotland’s children and young people; and, indeed, to those who care about Scotland’s future.

The critical importance of schools and of teachers in relation to young people’s health and well being has been profiled also.

It has been a stressful and difficult time for parents, pupils and teachers.

But throughout the pandemic the commitment and dedication of Scotland’s teachers, who have worked flat out to deliver a quality learning experience for young people, has been steadfast.

S5 and S6 students during an English Literature class at St Andrew's RC Secondary School in Glasgow. Picture: Press Association

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There have been many challenges along the way. At the time of the first lockdown, as school buildings were closed to most pupils with little notice and pupils, teachers, parents and carers were suddenly thrown into an unfamiliar world of remote learning and teaching. Schools had been given little or no time to prepare for this, and the reality is the structure to support such a momentous shift simply wasn’t in place.

Much progress has since been made to support online learning when it is required. There has been a significant investment to support the upgrading of IT infrastructure to facilitate remote learning. In the first lockdown, the evidence was that pupils from the poorest sections of society were those least likely to be able to access online learning. The subsequent provision of tablets or laptops to pupils, with internet connections provided, has been key to addressing very real concerns over inequity of access to online provision.

While the enhanced facilities to support online learning are welcome, it is clear in-person learning in school absolutely remains the preferred model. Keeping school buildings open to all pupils brought many challenges. Schools are sociable places, where pupils and staff work in close proximity for a large part of the day. Even at times when, outside of schools, severe limits were placed on mixing between different households, in schools there was mixing of over 30 households in individual classrooms.

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Larry Flanagan, EIS General Secretary

Keeping schools open safely requires strong and appropriate mitigations to be in place to protect the health of pupils, staff and their families. Whilst it is true that, for most young people, Covid symptoms are generally mild, it is also true the long-term impact of Covid infection, including the condition known as ‘long-Covid’, remains to be seen. The health and wellbeing of school staff – a significant percentage of whom fall into at least one of the higher-risk groups – also must be protected.

Without sufficient numbers of staff, schools simply cannot operate and working in busy school buildings can increase the risk of staff becoming ill if adequate safety measures are not taken to protect them.

The onset of Winter and the emergence of the new Omicron variant has increased the challenges that schools face. One of the most important mitigations to reduce the risk of Covid spread is to ensure classrooms are well ventilated to lessen the chance of airborne spread of the virus. This is far more difficult to achieve during the colder months, when keeping windows open to allow air to flow can lead to classrooms becoming far too cold for pupils and staff to work in. Mechanical solutions such as air filters are an alternative option, but many schools simply do not have access to this type of equipment.

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Some very hard decisions have required to be taken as a result of the pandemic. Physical distancing was difficult for many pupils, particularly very young children or those in special educational settings. Use of face-coverings, still in place for staff and for pupils in secondary schools, is also a continuing challenge. Many teachers agree that face-coverings are unpleasant and create unwelcome barriers to communication in schools – particularly for those who are hearing-impaired or have a special educational need – but the majority still support their use in schools as an unfortunate but necessary consequence of the Covid pandemic.

Parental involvement in school life has also been restricted by the pandemic. In most schools, things like in-person parent-teacher meetings have been halted by Covid. Access to school events - such as concerts, Christmas shows and nativity plays – can currently only be granted in online format. This is difficult for pupils, parents and teachers alike. Sadly, with Omicron spreading rapidly in recent weeks, it is likely these mitigations will remain necessary and in place for quite some time to come. We have already seen some schools in Scotland forced to close their doors, and move to remote learning, as result of staff shortages around Omicron clusters.

We are certainly not out of the woods yet.

Concern may immediately focus on next year’s qualifications, currently planned as a resumption of an exam diet. Over the past two years, teachers have delivered qualifications in the most difficult of circumstances by going above and beyond to ensure students were not critically disadvantaged by issues beyond their control. Hopefully this year will be more straightforward but if new challenges emerge the EIS will work with others to support students and to deliver equitable outcomes.

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A long list of issues face EIS members: a pay settlement now nine months overdue; Covid safety; excessive workload; and health and well-being concerns. Despite this, Scotland’s teachers continue to concentrate their efforts on delivering the best possible education for young people. They deserve support in their endeavours.

Larry Flanagan, General Secretary, The Educational Institute of Scotland

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