Orkney Islands Council Seeks Earlier Return for Schools and Nurseries #Covid19 Update

Mainland Scotland is now in level 4 of Covid restrictions with the Islands Authorities: Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles, in level 3, along with The Isle of Coll, the Isle of Colonsay, the Isle of Erraid, the Isle of Gometra, the Isle of Iona, the Isle of Islay, the Isle of Jura, the Isle of Mull, the Isle of Oronsay, the Isle of Tiree, and the Isle of Ulva.

These tougher arrangements were put in place by the Scottish Government as preventative measures because of two main factors:- the new strain of Covid19 which is much more infectious, and the relaxation of restrictions which took place on Christmas Day.

As numbers in England of the virus continued to rise and even more so in Wales, over recent days Scotland has seen a slight fall.

Orkney Islands Council is seeking even more relaxation for arrangements within the islands and issued a ‘Letter to all Orkney Residents‘ on its website explaining its reasoning.

Given the impact on the mental health and wellbeing of our community, especially when there are currently no recorded cases within Orkney, the Council has decided that it is appropriate to review the current levels of restrictions on travel within the County between the North and South Isles and the Orkney mainland today. To be clear, only essential travel to and from the Scottish mainland will be permitted as per the Scottish Government’s requirements. However, the travel arrangements for internal journeys within the County on Orkney Ferries will now revert to the procedures that have been in place whilst Orkney has been classified as a Level 1 area. This means that people will be able to pre-book travel between the North and South Isles and the Orkney Mainland in the same way that they were previously able to do. This does not remove the need for folk to carefully follow all other Scottish Government guidance in relation to living within the Level 3 area and it is essential that any travel arrangements are planned and undertaken in this context.

For schools and nurseries Orkney Islands Council also desires to have an earlier return for all pupils and staff compared to the rest of Scotland.

All of Scotland will be having a phased return as follows:

  • Schools will reopen for childcare purposes in the first week of term for the children of key workers and the most vulnerable children only, with the guidance setting out who this applies to
  • For the majority of pupils the holiday period will effectively be extended until 11 January and learning will take place online from the 11 January to the 15 January
  • All these measures will be kept under regular review
  • All children who are eligible for free school meals will continue to receive them during this period

Orkney Islands Council state in their letter to residents:

In light of the fact that…there are no current COVID-19 cases in Orkney, nor has there been a case for some considerable amount of time, Orkney Islands Council believe that it would be entirely appropriate to fully open schools and nurseries on Wednesday 6 January 2021 or as soon as practicable thereafter.

OIC consider that children in Orkney have been adversely affected by prolonged closures and have suffered due to connectivity and remote learning issues.

 a further period of remote learning will widen the attainment gap and should only be considered where absolutely necessary and where underpinned by material facts regarding local transmission of COVID-19.

It is particularly disappointing that the local council, despite the considerable time Covid has now been with us, is still not able to provide adequate remote learning for our pupils and students in the islands.

The council also feels that returning to school at the same time as the rest of Scotland with a phased approach will have negative affects on the local economy.

We also believe implementing access to schooling and child care only for key workers, when there are no recorded cases on our islands, is an extra burden and challenge for other parents who would otherwise be scheduled to return to work in the first full week of the new year. It should also be recognised that Orkney is regarded as being one of the most vulnerable economies in Scotland.

In tier 3, which Orkney is now in, it is still the case that the public health advice is for those who can work from home to still do so.

Here are the latest stats for Scotland:

On 25 December:

  • 1,165 new cases of COVID-19 reported
  • 30,619 new tests for COVID-19 that reported results – 4.3% of these were positive

And sadly on 24 December, there were  43 new reported death(s) of people who have tested positive.

  • 4,416 people have died who have tested positive as at 24 December
  • 6,298 deaths have been registered in Scotland where COVID-19 was mentioned on the death certificate up to 20 December
  • 40% of COVID-19 registered deaths related to deaths in care homes, 54% were in hospitals and 6% were at home or non-institutional settings (as at 20 December)

This virus is highly infectious and hospital admissions are extremely worrying. If those numbers continue to increase then it can overwhelm our NHS and have a knock on adverse effect on the provision of other NHS services and procedures.

1,008 people were in hospital on 23 December with recently confirmed COVID-19; of these 56 were in intensive care.

Here is what is permitted at Level 3 in Scotland. Click on this link to download

And click on this link for Level 4 in Scotland

Whilst it is correct that Orkney has had a relatively low number of positive Covid cases recorded it should also be remembered that in the early weeks of the virus 2 people died as a result and many more have been very ill. We don’t know yet if there will be a rise in confirmed cases due to the relaxation around visiting on Christmas Day. There is a 10 to 14 day time lag in confirmed cases and people first being infected.

Given those factors it is concerning that Orkney Islands Council should leap ahead with wanting to relax our restrictions – in particular an early return to school putting at risk the health of staff, pupils and their families. A rise in cases in Orkney would put back all the months of hardship we have gone through. It would make the economic recovery take even longer and put a strain on our small but highly efficient health service.

No one denies the importance of keeping schools open but OIC should have by now provided every pupil and student in Orkney a means to access remote learning . Even after schools do reopen there will be families that have to isolate and educational provision for remote learning should be available to every pupil and student in Orkney. That is the responsibility of the council and they have had months to get that in place.

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

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7 replies »

  1. WHAT???

    Thank you, Fiona, for clearly stating what should be clear to everyone.

    Please, people, weigh it up and do what makes most sense.

    ‘The Economy’ – isn’t everything!

    • It is obvious that Orkney’s (so far) rather low case numbers are also due to a portion of simple and sheer luck. It could have been very different… remoteness alone and low case numbers for a while are by no means a guarantor for ongoing safety as it could be observed in other remote places which fared well for some time but then suddenly had to deal with outbreaks.
      OIC should adopt the precautionary principle. Opening schools earlier than the rest of Scotland could be a dangerous gamble, especially since we cannot yet determine what the festive period will contribute to disease dynamics in the near future.
      A potential local outbreak will harm the economy far more than restriction measures.
      To put it bluntly: it would have been a wiser decision to put the whole country in the same (tier 4) measures. Patchwork approaches haven’t worked elsewhere and it is a question of time how long they can be adopted in the isles without compromising public health.

      Tier 4 does allow for support for the ones who are really struggling to cope, whether physically or mentally. Everybody affected needs and is entitled to support. But not every inconvenience or alteration to social life can be justified with mental health impacts. I have sent my own parents (both approaching their 80s) in strict home isolation as early as beginning of February, long before any lockdowns. Of course we would have liked to see each other, but it would not have been safe. Since February we enjoy daily chats over the phone, the good old-fashioned landline, some of these chats are far longer as we had before the pandemic. In fact, this whole situation has brought us closer and that we can’t meet up is simply an inconvenience, which we are prepared to endure as long as it is necessary.

      Up here in Orkney, we should consider ourselves lucky, that we can – quite easily – maintain physical distancing (I never liked the wording of ‘social’ distancing, after all it is only physical) and are not stuck in overcrowded housing without access to running water as people are in many regions of the world.
      We should also consider ourselves lucky that home schooling has always (and continues to be) a feasible choice. A choice which – even before the pandemic – many parents have made to educate their children at home (for various reasons). If, for many, this has been a welcome option for many years, why should it not work for others now? Schooling and childcare for the ones who need it (keyworkers) will be provided in tier 4, but risks and pressures for these children and their (keyworker!) families will be reduced if they are not forced to mingle with everyone else. We very much depend on our keyworkers, after all they are the ones, who keep services running, keep us supplied with essentials etc. so we have a duty to make sure they and their families are protected. We should not burden them with additional risks.

      Over the course of the pandemic (which is far from over!) OIC has made several decisions which were risky (to say the least). The dynamic of the disease brings with it, that risks do not diminish (yet) but rather increase. Hence, OIC should adopt even more caution now as in previous months. Inter-island ferry travel for other than essential reasons may already not be compatible with a cautious approach but opening schools earlier than everywhere else could turn out to be Russian roulette.

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