Covid is on the rise in Highland primaries and could be spread on the school bus, members of the council’s education committee have heard.
Dr Tim Allison, director of public health and policy for NHS Highland, spoke on Wednesday about the “surprising” rise of Covid cases among primary school children.
“We had hoped that Covid rates would be going down since the peak in August, but probably a bit worse than plateauing, it’s been going up in the community.
“That tends to be all across the communities,” said Dr Allison.
Dr Allison said areas that have not had major outbreaks in the past appear to be feeling the brunt of cases now.
He said the health board is recording around 200 cases a day, two-thirds of those in the Highland Council area.
“What’s different now to previous waves of Covid is the preponderance among young people, particularly of primary school age,” he said.
“That’s probably for two reasons: partly that young children are not vaccinated and secondly that lots of young children in the past have not been infected.
“We have a lot of Covid within schools, particularly primary schools. What is perhaps surprising is the amount of Covid in any one class.
“We could get a class with a majority of children – the great majority in some cases – testing positive for Covid. That’s unusual.”
Dr Allison stressed that there’s not one reason why Covid is on the rise in Highland primary schools. However, school buses could play a part.
He explained: “There may also be some differences in the way that schools work here compared with other places. An example of that could be the large number of children who travel by small school buses, and the possibility of spread there.”
Young children on school buses may be asked to wear face masks, said Dr Allison.
He also said it’s possible the vaccination programme will expand to include younger children. However, he stressed this was speculation.
Dr Jenny Wares from Health Protection Scotland underlined the strong partnership working going on between health and education.
“It has been a challenging start but we’re working incredibly closely with school staff.
“We’re so grateful for the work they’re doing on top of their existing roles. They’re working tirelessly to prevent Covid spreading,” she said.
Dr Wares clarified the process on school closures and isolation. She said that where there is one positive case, the school notifies public health and issues letters to all parents in that class.
Pupils do not need to test or self-isolate immediately, she said. This is a change from previous protocol. Instead, the advice is to be vigilant for symptoms.
If there are more positive cases in the same class, Public Health Scotland carries out a risk assessment. This aims to clarify whether the virus is spreading within the class.
If so, the entire class or even the entire school will be asked to isolate.
Derek Martin from the council said schools have also had to close due to the high numbers of staff self-isolating. Last month, there were 1000 Covid cases in schools.
Avoch Primary on the Black Isle suffered a major outbreak, with 80 pupils testing positive for Covid, said Mr Martin.
Improved ventilation through CO2 monitors is helping, he said, and the schools continue to encourage face coverings and hand washing.
“There has been a significant rise in the number of staff who have contracted Covid, or who are self-isolating pending test results,” said Mr Martin.
“This has led at times to schools having partial or complete shutdowns. Today we have two primary and two nurseries closed.
“Across Highland we have 160 new positive cases in staff and pupils reported since Monday.
“Our schools are well placed to deliver virtual learning, but we also recognise the fatigue of our teaching and non-teaching staff, and we continue to support our headteachers who work very late into the night, for days on end when outbreaks occur.”
By local democracy reporter Nicola Sinclair
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