Teachers warn of legal consequences over Covid safety as Scots schools re-open

TEACHERS have put Scottish councils and the government “on notice” over potential legal consequences as concerns continue to surface over the safety of the re-opening of schools.

In a stark letter to Scotland’s education directors, the NASUWT teachers union in Scotland said it was warning employers and the Government that it was “reserving our members’ legal rights” over any issues arising from the return to full-time education.

The union says employers have found the timescale for completing their plans for next week’s opening “very challenging” and said it was aware that a number were unable to complete them before the end of the summer term.

A survey by the NASUWT teacher’s union in early July revealed that nearly half of teachers who responded did not feel prepared to return to their school or college in August and just 22% said they felt safe or very safe as a result of the provisions their employer was putting in place to mitigate the risks of Covid-19.

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The warning comes as new calls have been made for ministers to ensure safety in the classroom in advance of the re-opening of schools on August 11 while official guidance issued to councils said that children should “return to school as quickly and as safely as possible”.

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The executive committee of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), the country’s largest teaching union, has raised “significant concerns” over guidelines for the re-opening of Scotland’s schools and has written to the Deputy First Minister John Swinney calling for a number of actions to be taken “as a matter of urgency” to protect pupils, staff and the wider community from the risk of COVID-19 infection.

The NASUWT letter by its general secretary Dr Patrick Roach, said that the “challenging timetable” set by the Government had been further compounded by the fact that the final guidance on opening in August has only now become available.

It says that teachers and other school staff have the right to the “same considerations and protections in the workplace that are being applied to other workers and to the public, and to be confident that their health and welfare, as well as that of pupils, is at the heart of any planning for opening”.

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The union said local authorities should ensure all schools had in place a range of measures, including a procedure in place to report and address any positive Covid-19 tests among staff and pupils, clear signage to ensure physical distancing, high standards of hygiene practice and the provision of counselling support for staff and pupils.

Dr Roach warned that “we are putting employers and the Government on notice, by reserving our members’ legal rights in the context of a delictual liability for breach of duty of care and personal injury due to foreseeable risk, and any other legal recourse available.”

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John Swinney

It added:”The union will also consider an employer to be in breach of our members’ legal rights, under Section 44 and 100 of the Employment Rights Act 1996, if they are subjected to detriment and/or dismissal in circumstances of danger which our members have reasonable belief to be serious and imminent.

“The NASUWT recognises that schools and employers have been placed in a situation where the wrong decision will result in people becoming seriously ill and dying, and will therefore appreciate that there can be no compromise on health and safety.

“If this means that schools need to delay full opening to all pupils in order to ensure they can complete all necessary planning, consultation and training of staff required to safeguard the health and safety of staff and pupils, then that position must be accepted.

“The NASUWT looks forward to working with you to ensure that the health, safety and welfare of staff and pupils are protected in these unprecedented circumstances.

EIS have raised concerns with the Scottish Government about a lack of regularly pre-symptom Covid-19 testing, physical distancing and class sizes.

In the letter, EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan says guidelines over the return to full-time schooling “fell short in significant areas”.

Calling for further action to ensure safety, the letter goes on: “The EIS welcomes the fact that Scotland appears to have successfully suppressed the virus at this point in time; however, we would not wish to see the reopening of schools act as a catalyst to a resurgence. That means we must ensure that school buildings are COVID-secure environments. Across the globe we are witnessing how quickly things can deteriorate. Teachers, pupils, and parents have every reason to be anxious about schools reopening.

“Addressing the concerns raised in this letter would go some way to offering reassurance.”

The Herald revealed last week that teachers and pupils will not be routinely tested for coronavirus when all schools re-open next month, despite fears of an impending second wave.

It has been confirmed that what is described as an “enhanced surveillance” involving sample testing and covering only a cross-section of schools is being planned by the Scottish Government – but that may not be ready in time for August 11.

The Scottish Greens have remained concerned over a lack of routine testing and believe that teachers should get the same protection as many professional sports stars and staff at clubs who are tested at least twice a week.

Health Secretary Jeane Freeman has committed that all 53,000 care home staff would be offered weekly tests to help cut infections, the site of around half of Scotland’s Covid deaths. But the Scottish Government has since been beset with problems in addressing that.

A spokesman for Convention of Scottish Local Authorities said: “The councils’ overriding priority is to ensure a safe return to education for our children and young people as we have been extremely conscious of the impact that not being in school has on children, young people and families.

“Local authority staff have been working over the summer to make preparations not only for a full return but for the contingency of blended learning.

“Following the publication of guidance last week the hard work of school staff – cleaners, janitors, catering staff, teachers, support staff and youth workers – will be focussed on making sure that our children and young people get the very best from their education in what will be a very different environment from what they were used to before the pandemic.”

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