MORE schools may be forced to close if staff absences due to coronavirus remain at their current record levels, teaching unions have warned.

Teachers and staff are becoming “increasingly anxious” because strategies designed to prevent transmission of the virus are “slipping” – with “resistance” from school heads to allow teachers to access PCR testing, according to Seamus Searson of the SSTA.

He said there was also a concern that vulnerable staff, including pregnant teachers, were not being given additional protection by the schools to keep them safe.

Searson said the lack of a national message to adhere to mitigations meant that each local authority was interpreting the government message differently, with differences also apparent at school level.

“Head teachers are trying to keep schools open and keep pupils in schools but the mitigations and the tracing are slipping,” he said. “This will lead to schools being closed due to the lack of teachers in the coming months.”

The warning comes after Dingwall Academy in the Highlands had to close last week due to staff having to self-isolate.

Searson said there needed to be a “clear, consistent message” from the Scottish Government on the enforcement of mitigations in schools, including face coverings in all secondaries, if schools are to remain open.

“We are seeing an increasing level of anxiety in our members as there is an inconsistent understanding of what is a ‘close contact’,” he said “Teachers and other school staff are not being contacted when a pupil is identified with Covid despite being in close proximity throughout the day. We are hearing of a resistance from headteachers to allow teachers to access PCR testing as they are worried about cover and the possibility of sending pupils home.”

The problem is compounded by teacher parents with children who have been asked to self-isolate, according to Searson.

“The Government wants to reopen the economy and society but this can only happen if children are in school,” he pointed out. “Therefore, enhanced mitigations in schools, that are different to everywhere else, must be in place and continue. Keeping schools open is a priority.”

Larry Flannigan, leader of teachers’ union, the EIS, said there was more chance of schools closing through staff absence than pupil absence.

“We currently have the highest level of staff absence since the pandemic started and the highest level of pupils infections so there is a real challenge there,” he said.

“If you have high staff absences then there is little choice but to close because of basic health and safety. You need the teacher numbers there to make sure pupils are properly supervised.”

In some cases, he said it would be easier to close the school and go back to learning remotely so that “everyone is on the same page”.

The EIS is also calling for a strengthening of test and trace procedures with regard to pupils’ contacts.

“A lot of pupils who are close contacts and sitting beside someone all day are not being required to get PCR tested because Public Health Scotland don’t see a clinical risk in terms of health outcomes – but we think that is leading to more kids sitting in class transmitting infections,” said Flannigan.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Our guidance, which is informed by expert advice, helps to protect pupils, staff, and learning. The policy is kept under constant review to ensure it remains appropriate in light of the latest data and evidence.

“It is important we continue to work collaboratively to ensure our schools are as safe as possible. That’s why Cosla and the Scottish Government recently wrote to education leaders to pay tribute to the work done during the pandemic and to reiterate the importance of continuing to stick to all the mitigations in schools.

“Asymptomatic testing is one of those mitigations and we strongly encourage school staff and secondary pupils to take regular tests and to record all results.”