Fewer than one-third of teachers currently feel safe from potential COVID infection in schools, a major survey carried out by Scotland’s largest teaching union has revealed.

The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) surveyed teachers across Scotland on COVID safety in schools over the past week, and the results lay bare the depth of the concern held by teachers over potential risk to their and their pupils' health.

The EIS survey was designed to gauge teachers’ views on issues such as the effectiveness of current COVID safety procedures in schools, whether schools should remain fully open or move to blended or remote learning in areas under Level 3 or 4 restrictions, and teachers’ willingness or otherwise to take industrial action if necessary in areas where teachers believe that schools are unsafe.

The findings of the survey include:

  • Almost two-thirds (64%) of teachers either ‘supported’ (48%) or ‘fully supported’ (16%) the Scottish Government decision to prioritise keeping schools open, where possible.

  • However, despite this support, fewer than one-third of teachers (31%) indicate that they feel ‘safe’ (26%) or ‘very safe’ (5%) in schools under the current COVID safety measures.

  • At level 3, there is clear support (86%) for schools remaining open, although just under half of respondents (48%) believe this should be on a blended learning model to enable physical distancing.

  • At level 4, the majority of respondents (51%) believe that remote learning should be introduced on safety grounds – although 45% support either a blended learning approach (34%) or maintaining current arrangements but with additional safety mitigations in place (11%).

  • Despite the support for keeping schools open where safe to do so, two-thirds of respondents (66%) also indicated a willingness to support industrial action, including strike action, in protest at failure to move to blended or remoted learning in higher risk (Level 4) areas of the country where staff deemed it necessary.

  • 33% of respondents indicated that they were either in a ‘vulnerable’ category themselves (9%) or lived with, or provided care for, someone who was in a vulnerable group (24%). Vulnerable groups include those in the former shielding category, people identifying as BAME, and those who are pregnant.

Commenting, EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan said, “These survey findings confirm that the majority of Scotland’s teachers want to be in school working with pupils, and support the aim of keeping schools open where possible. Despite this, however, it is clear that a significant number of teachers (43%) do not feel safe working in schools under the existing arrangements. This feeling of being at risk is particularly heightened for teachers in secondary schools, for teachers in higher risk areas under Level 3 or Level 4 restrictions, and for teachers in vulnerable groups or who live with or provide care for vulnerable family members.”

Mr Flanagan continued, “Although members hold a range of opinions on the best means of keeping pupils and teachers safe, there is clear support for moving to industrial action in higher risk areas to protest where teachers feel that the measures required to keep schools safe have not been delivered.”

Mr Flanagan added, “The EIS has repeatedly said that schools remaining operational cannot come at the expense of teacher and pupil wellbeing. Just as importantly blended and remote learning models are increasingly being adopted to stem increases in COVID community infection levels. For Level 4 restrictions to be as effective as we would wish them to be, short term closure or part closure of schools need to be considered.”

Sample Comment from teachers in response to the survey

  • “My fear is that I am bringing in hundreds of potential contacts into my home. My children attend a different secondary school, and they are also bringing hundreds of contacts into the home every day. Despite the mitigations, pupils are not wearing face coverings as recommended in the guidance and this has the potential to infect others as social distancing between pupils is impossible in schools. The added stress that this is causing is not sustainable to deal with.”

  • “It seems that the council is not keen to let the staff, pupils and parents know what the prevalence is in the school. At one point I felt it was statistically 10 times more prevalent in school than in the local authority. If this information was shared it would help staff to assess their own risk to themselves and their dependents and also to help increase measures in school when prevalence is high. The absence of information leads to rumour and a less trusting environment, and less goodwill.”

  • “While staff and pupils are all trying their best to comply with wearing face coverings and regular hand washing and sanitising, the idea that staff and pupils can always remain at a 2m distance is unrealistic and at times practically impossible.”

  • “I would like to see us campaigning to be held on a equal footing to NHS staff as regards priority for flu vaccines. If we are expected to be working on the frontline, the least the government can do is to ensure that there are supplies of flu vaccine available for teachers. Equally, if a Covid vaccine becomes available, teachers must be prioritised.”

  • “I am extremely concerned about the lack of communication and openness in regard to the many Covid cases amongst staff and pupils. It all seems very secretive and staff are expected to carry on at all cost.”

  • “I am feeling increasing anxiety with the amount of pressure on us to both 'continue as normal' and at the same time implement all the restrictions. We cannot do everything, and at times are being asked to teach online and teach in class as well as keep track of kids who are isolating on top of massive pressure from the SQA. In these uncertain times I feel that teachers are being asked to step outside of our jobs, put our health (mental and physical) on the line with little to no consideration. We have no say in the risks we are being forced to take and yet the workload continues to pile up - even more than usual.”

  • “It appears like we don’t matter and are totally replaceable within our school roles. However, the stress COVID has caused and the extreme preparation I do for my class before arriving, whilst there and once home is getting ridiculous! My young family is suffering because of it as I’m so tired! The government forget that we are not replaceable to our own kids and families.”