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Education / School attendance rates rise during pandemic

Photo: Shetland News

ATTENDANCE rates among school pupils rose markedly during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to statistics published by Shetland Islands Council (SIC).

The number of secondary pupils whose attendance rate was 90 per cent or lower fell from 419 in 2019/20 to just 12 in 2020/21, while for primary pupils the same measure showed a drop from 342 to 120.

Overall sickness was down to 2.6 per cent in 2020/21 compared to 3.6 per cent in 2019/20, figures contained in the schools service’s latest quarterly report show.

The attendance rate for secondary pupils rose year-on-year from 93 per cent to 97 per cent, and for primary pupils it increased from 96 per cent to 98 per cent.

SIC children’s services director Helen Budge pointed out that staff had not observed the same level of colds and other infections “because folk are not close” when Covid-19 restrictions apply.

“Generally our attendance levels have been higher, which sure seems strange,” she said. “It demonstrates that good hand hygiene, what a good impact that can have.”

Speaking during Monday’s education and families committee meeting, chairman George Smith said he had been “pleasantly surprised” by the consistently strong attendance figures.

In the quarterly report, covering the period from January to March this year, Budge set out how it had been a “difficult time” for staff and pupils as the islands went back into Covid-19 lockdown measures straight after the festive period.

She praised everyone for how they “very quickly adapted to the remote learning and for being at home” before pupils were phased back into schools from February onwards.

“There was a lot of change happening [and I’m] absolutely delighted with how well the staff across all sectors and all establishments were able to very quickly adapt and continue to provide services,” Budge told councillors.

Councillor Emma Macdonald expressed concern at apparent difficulties in recruiting to catering and cleaning posts, which she fears will “have a real impact on the sustainability of services”.

Budge said it appeared some people were reluctant to apply for posts amid the ongoing pandemic “because they feel they want to stay in a known environment”, and efforts were being made to encourage people to take on such roles.

“With catering and cleaning, folk do need to go into the school or the setting and folk don’t appear to be keen to do that.”

Worries were also raised about mental health issues some staff are struggling with. Budge said there had been an increase in use of a welfare support officer and e-learning activity that is available to staff.

“We haven’t seen a big increase in absences, but we have seen an increase in folk looking for support,” she said.

Budge added that the toll was only starting to show for some staff now as “we are coming to the end of a year like no other, and staff in schools are looking forward to a seven-week break in the summertime – and well deserved it is too”.

Smith said there had been multiple examples of “flexibility, adaptability, ingenuity” among staff, while he paid tribute to Budge for the “excellent leadership” she and her management team had shown.