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Highland Council leader issues plea to the First Minister over guidance on large gatherings amid huge pressure on schools because surging Covid cases are causing a wave of staff and pupils to self-isolate

By Scott Maclennan

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Council Leader Margaret Davidson has sounded the alarm amid mounting pressure on Highland schools.
Council Leader Margaret Davidson has sounded the alarm amid mounting pressure on Highland schools.

The leader of Highland Council has issued an urgent call to the First Minister to review guidance over schools and large gatherings amid “unmanageable” levels of cases which are rising daily.

Councillor Margaret Davidson said her intervention was triggered by schools coming under enormous pressure contacting the council as some were unable to function due to the high numbers of staff and pupils self-isolating.

She said teachers were under great stress as they tried to simultaneously manage face-to-face teaching and online classes while whole cohorts of S5 and S6 were “wiped out” due to self-isolation.

The fear is not just the short-term impact on schools – including those with a small number of staff – but on the long-term education outcomes right across Inverness and the wider Highlands.

Cllr Davidson is urging a potential return to the ongoing assessment model used in place of the last two exam diets during the pandemic which would take the pressure off pupils.

But the council leader emphasised that she did not want to see a return to lockdown, rather a change of the guidance that would make the situation more manageable.

“My message to the First Minister this morning is that Covid is really affecting our schools. We also have to consider all potential gatherings,” she said. “I am just taking the opportunity to say – this is a big deal in the Highlands.

“Education is where it has hit the hardest. Education doesn’t just affect education, the knock-on effect in families are considerable. I already wrote to John Swinney and spoke with him last week.

“I don’t want to panic people, people are being very responsible, but what we are asking is – think hard about this from the schools’ point of view and please can you go back and have another look at the bigger gatherings of people.

“We cannot ignore the effects that are happening within the system at the moment. I think what our education professionals would like is to go back to a larger element of self-assessment to take some of the pressure off the young people and to take another look at the isolation criteria to make sure it is really working.

“Our message is let's not panic and go back inside but can we be very thoughtful about what is happening in our schools with the possibility of bigger spreading events.

“This time it is the calls from our schools and the real strain that they are under that made me stop and think, that and the events that are going on which are licensed and can go ahead.

“Some of the schools are under real pressure, in fact some of the small ones are not able to function if they lose one or two members of staff and we are getting whole years wiped out.

“It was the schools that triggered it for me.”

Cllr Davidson illustrated what some of the problems are, saying: “It is a huge strain on the staff, we have got some really good online teaching but we have now got staff who are trying to teach a classroom in front of them and are trying to teach online as well – that is no mean feat.

“We know the government can’t wave a magic wand but we are asking them to think again about the position of our children as they are talking about bringing back a whole diet of exams next year.

“It is too early to say, hang on we won’t be doing the full lot of exams, we will be doing a lot more assessment this year, because here it is again – the prospect of young people’s education being affected again."

Significant council events have been cancelled too, Cllr Davidson said: “We were due to have the Kirking of the Council at the weekend but we had to cancel that because it is just not appropriate to have lines of people along the streets and indoor church services.

“That is a great shame, it is a real tradition, we missed it last year and we were really looking forward to getting it this year but we pulled it because of the infection rate this year and we don’t want to be spreading it.

“What I am asking the government is to look again at the restrictions, are they intervening enough with these bigger events, do we need clearer guidance on numbers?

“It is for them to follow the science and make the hard decisions but at the moment we are really quite concerned about gatherings so we really want them to acknowledge the difficulties in schools.”

Related Story – Highland Council leader: 'Level of Covid cases is almost unmanageable'

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