Talks are ongoing regarding a potential extended Christmas break for schools, West Dunbartonshire Council’s chief executive has confirmed.
Speaking at a full council meeting last week, Joyce White advised councillors that discussions were underway on the possibility of an extended holiday in a bid to reduce the risk of Covid transmission.
It came as Labour councillor Douglas McAllister made an impassioned plea on behalf of teachers for an urgent review of safety measures in schools, particularly in secondary schools, and consideration of blended learning.
This is despite the fact the education secretary, depute First Minister John Swinney, has ruled out blended learning for any local authority, even those in the harshest tier of Covid restrictions, including West Dunbartonshire.
Councillor McAllister said: “If the Scottish Government does not recognise special measures are required, we at West Dunbartonshire can recognise that and take our own action.
“Please recognise the urgency of this call. Teachers and school staff are asking us to act now. We can take our own decisions locally to be bold, brave and take action now on behalf of our school staff in West Dunbartonshire.”
Chief executive Joyce White had earlier confirmed discussions around the extended festive break saying: “Our schools will be closing at the moment to plan on December 23. However we have had indication that schools may close earlier.
“There are national discussions around early Christmas closure of schools.”
A leaked document last week showed the local authority group Cosla had discussed the proposals at a Covid-19 Education Recovery Group meeting on Thursday, November 26.
Council leaders were asked for their thoughts on the festive break taking place between December 18 and January 11.
The document also proposed schools moving to a temporary remote learning system following the relaxation of strict coronavirus rules over five days in December.
It read: “The Scottish Government are exploring a national extension to Christmas holidays covering 18th December to 11th January, either on the basis of schools remaining closed or the temporary introduction of remote learning.
“The Scottish Government officials have indicated that the objectives of an extension would be to ensure that school staff are not involved in contact tracing into the Christmas period.
“An extension would act as a ‘break’ following the wider relaxation of restrictions over the Christmas period.”
The memo, which was signed off by Cosla’s policy manager for Children and Young People Matthew Sweeney, also contained concerns that had been raised about the proposed changes.
They included the provision of emergency childcare for key workers and the time required to properly set up remote learning facilities if that option was selected.
It is unclear at this stage if the proposals would also take in nurseries.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Questions have been raised in relation to the timing of the school holidays, in particular that some schools break up very close to Christmas.
“This issue was discussed at the Education Recovery Group meeting where there were mixed views and no decision has been reached.”
Education chief Laura Mason confirmed at last week’s council meeting that there had been 150 positive cases in schools since they returned in mid August which had resulted in 2337 incidences of self-isolation among staff and pupils, some of whom have had to isolate due to being a close contact more
All West Dunbartonshire councillors last week backed a motion for an urgent review into the maximum Covid-safe capacity for pupils and staff in secondary schools with a report to be brought back to council as quickly as practically possible.
Councillor Douglas McAllister said he has had extensive talks with the EIS union and wanted to stress they are not calling for schools to be closed but are looking for additional safety measures to be put in place.
He told last week’s meeting: “The EIS locally have surveyed their members. The vast majority feel that they need the protection of blended learning during this level four phase.
“The EIS wish me to emphasise on their behalf that there is absolutely no call for schools to close nor are they keen to go down the route of remote learning but the teachers wish to emphasise that they do feel very stressed at school now and it’s important that council hear of this.
“It’s important that our public and our parents hear about this.
“At secondary level, some of our teachers will be in contact with up to 150 children every day.
“The teachers through the EIS wish me to emphasise that they do feel fearful for themselves and their families.
“Social distancing doesn’t work or is largely non-existent and that’s the direct quote I was given from EIS locally.
“It’s still very difficult to get compliance on mask wearing. There are still children who frequently fail to comply.
“Blended learning would allow for greatly reduced number of contacts and would allow for an additional element of social distancing in our schools.
“We are pushed to an expectation and demand that no-one else is pushed to.
“Every other profession not working from home, for example, the care industry is PPEd up to the eyeballs.
“Teachers wish to emphasise that they understand the impact of closing schools and that’s why they are not calling for that.
“They are committed to their vocation, they love their jobs as teachers. They are not contemplating industrial action, They are worried about their pupils and the impact on the
SQA results but they are worried about their health and the health of their families.
“This is not an unreasonable request.”
Council leader Jonathan McColl said that a comprehensive blended learning plan was ready to go in West Dunbartonshire if and when required.
However, the chief executive said that if a move to blended learning with some time out of school was to be implemented, there would have to be consideration to other factors ensuring vulnerable children were protected.
Joyce White said: “Blended learning brings with it other challenges in our communities. That could result in 7000 children not getting the chance to come to school. We will need to be able to give you a balanced response and risk assessment against any additional measures that we might be recommending.
“We want to make sure anything that we might do locally does not increase any risk to any children or young people in our communities.”
Education chief Laura Mason also confirmed that there could be difficulties in relation to those in receipt of free school meals and for working parents’s childcare arrangements if children were not in school for the whole week.
Dumbarton councillor David McBride stressed that there was a difference to be drawn between primary and secondary schools where he believes there is a greater risk.
The Labour member told the Lennox Herald: “Older children are more susceptible to spreading the virus. There is a distinction between secondary and primary schools.
“By and large in primary schools, there is one teacher to a class sitting in the same environment all day every day.
“In secondary schools, pupils are moving from class to class every hour. Their teacher for example would potentially have contact with 150 pupils on a daily basis. Childcare is also not such a concern for senior pupils.”
He is also calling for a review of the blended learning model as he feels secondary pupils taking part in some practical subjects aren’t getting the chance to do so due to restrictions which opens up some time in the school week.
Councillor McBride said: “When the blended model was looked at in June, there was obviously a public outcry at the lack of education for our youngsters. The Scottish Government did a 100 percent u-turn at that point from a situation where it was very limited to everybody went back.
“Covid is in a far worse situation now. No-one wants to go back to that particular model but there might be something in between.
“There is so much in schools which can’t be done at the moment. It is very much, Monday to Friday, sitting at a desk being taught.”