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More than 1000 pupils are off school along with 150 staff as surging Covid cases force them into self-isolation as council bosses speak of the most 'stressful' week of the whole pandemic

By Scott Maclennan

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More than 1000 pupils and 150 staff are off school because they are self-isolating due to a surge in Covid cases across the Highlands, according to the region’s head of education Nicky Grant.

The stark numbers were revealed at Highland Council’s education committee yesterday. Concerns prompted council leader Margaret Davidson to issue a rare public call for urgent action from the First Minister earlier this week.

Ms Grant said: “As we start the new session, we see an increase of positive Covid cases both nationally and locally, which reminds us we need to be vigilant, follow all the rules and stay safe.

“As it currently stands, we have 79 staff absences with Covid symptoms, 71 non-teaching staff and there were 58 confirmed cases of Covid within our teaching staff.

“And we currently have over 1000 pupils across our early learning and childcare, primary and secondary settings – a figure that has increased by five per cent in the last week – 295 of those young people are in the senior phase and potentially face exams next year.

“I am, however, pleased to say that over 7.8 per cent of our 16-plus students have been vaccinated.”

Council chief executive Donna Manson also underlined the depth of the current crisis saying that the public health team were unable to brief the meeting because they were “overwhelmed” but additional support had been requested and delivered.

“This has been one of the most stressful weeks for our council services and for the NHS in the whole of the pandemic so far,” she said.

“I have agreed with the public health team, Dr Jenny Wares is currently in the national incident room representing the Highlands and our response to Covid, in particular the test and protect system, and testing in schools.

“A week ago the team and the schools were managing 70 [Covid] case referrals in a day, within a week they were managing over 350 case referrals in a day.

“In response to that, as there is a system nationally, we have sought what is called ‘mutual aid’ and are now receiving additional support to help us with the significant backlog that is now being faced in terms of getting information back to the communities about what to do.”

Cabinet secretary for education and skills Shirley-Anne Somerville has sent a letter to local authorities, saying the government is “acutely aware” of the current pressures and urging local authorities to continue their efforts.

Councillor Davidson said: “I welcome the letter we received from Shirley-Anne Somerville but I still think our pupils and staff need more reassurance from the Scottish Government, particularly from the perspective of our young people and staff.

“Obviously this cannot happen overnight and no-one wants a return to a lockdown, however we are currently under so much pressure in Highland that we feel it is only fair that pupils and families see their way clearly as the academic year gathers momentum.”

Related Story – Highland Council leader issues plea to the First Minister over guidance on large gatherings amid huge pressure on schools

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