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Schools could return full-time in August, John Swinney announces

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Schools could return full-time in August, John Swinney announces

Deputy First Minister John Swinney has announced that schools will return to full-time classroom learning in August, as long as Scotland stays “on track” and continues to suppress the spread of coronavirus.

The move has been labelled “a screeching U-turn” by the Scottish Tories, since the Scottish Government’s initial plan was for schools to return on 11 August with a ‘blended learning’ approach mixing face-to-face teaching with home schooling, which Swinney had previously suggested could last for the whole school year.

On Tuesday, Swinney told the Scottish Parliament that “we have seen Scotland make significant progress” since the ‘blended learning’ plan was developed in May.

“There are now only around 2,000 infectious people in Scotland – a reduction of around 90 per cent since May. There has been a sustained downward trend in COVID-19 deaths since the end of 20-26 April, and intensive care cases now stand at a fraction of what they were,” he said.

“If we stay on track, if we all continue to do what is right, and if we can further suppress this terrible virus, then the government believes that we should prepare for children to be able to return to school full-time from August.”

The planned return will be conditional “on infection rates being sufficiently low to continue to control the virus, public health and testing systems being in place and protective measures and risk assessments being carried out in schools”, Swinney said.

He said the ‘blended learning’ model will still be prepared by councils as a contingency plan.

Swinney said returning to full-time schooling would “enhance the life chances of our children and young people and start to reverse any damaging impacts of recent months”.

“I must stress: this is the aim that the government is now working towards. However, because it has to be achieved safely, it inevitably remains conditional and dependent upon ongoing scientific and health advice. But it is a change born out of the hard work and sacrifice of people in every part of the country, sticking to the guidance, staying at home and suppressing this virus.

“I must emphasise the importance of Scotland staying on track if we are to make it a reality. We must continue to ensure the safety of pupils, teachers and staff by engaging in such contingency planning, and that is why Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Education will continue with their scrutiny of the plans when the latest versions are submitted by local authorities tomorrow.”

Education Scotland will work with digital training platform E-Sgoil to develop a “national e-learning provision for all senior phase pupils to access high quality lessons online learning by qualified teachers”. Additionally, £100m will be invested over two years to tackle the impact of lockdown on schools and pupils.

“Even with a return to full time education, it is imperative that we increase levels of digital inclusion, which is why we have already committed to a huge digital boost through the investment of £30m to provide laptops and connectivity solutions for disadvantaged children and young people. This will include £25m of funding to enable a roll out of digital devices to school pupils to enable them to study online,” Swinney said.

“Finally, while we want to support the wellbeing of all our children and young people, we know lockdown has been particularly difficult for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Reducing the poverty-related attainment gap is a defining mission for this government. We will therefore be working alongside partners to increase support to those families and communities who need it most.”

Scottish Tory shadow education secretary Jamie Greene said the plan signaled a “screeching U-turn from the SNP government”.

“The sad truth is that events of recent weeks have exposed a leadership vacuum in how these plans were put together and communicated. The fact that the SNP government were the last people to realise that their part time plans were simply no good, sums up their ignorance of the public mood on this issue.”

Scottish Labour education spokesperson Iain Gray labelled the statement as “the mother and father of ministerial climb downs”.

“If we can deliver this safely, it is very welcome news. But what a fine mess this is. There are still more questions than answers. What, if any, social distancing will be required in the classroom? That question wasn’t answered, and indeed on school transport too,” Gray said.

“What protective measures, PPE, deep cleaning, and testing will be required to keep teachers and staff safe?”

Scottish Greens education spokesperson Ross Greer said, while the news is a relief for some people, “for teachers, school support staff and their families, the anxiety will now have dramatically increased”.

Greer said he was glad Swinney had indicated he was supportive of Green proposals to regularly test school staff for COVID-19. “Children aren’t immune to this virus and adult members of staff certainly are not. They deserve this reassurance before they go back to the classroom,” he said.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said the next “challenge” for the government would be to “fix childcare availability for parents returning to work over the summer”.

Educational Institute of Scotland general secretary Larry Flanagan said it would be a "grave mistake" to believe that the virus has gone away and, in the event of schools reopening, "appropriate mitigations must be in place to protect staff and pupils and prevent flare-ups either in terms of localised resurgence in infection or even a full second wave".

"In terms of schools, this means looking at measures already being used elsewhere such as mandatory face coverings, protective perspex shields, proactive testing of teachers and an appropriate level of physical distancing between pupils and most certainly between pupils and staff, alongside continued protections for vulnerable groups. The EIS would expect these issues to be agreed within CERG before schools could reopen more fully," he said.

"A great deal of work at school level has already gone into planning for a blended learning model from August 11th, so any change to that will require time to adjust plans and conduct revised risk assessments. Again, this will need to be subject to discussion and agreement. Everyone wishes to see schools operate as normal, but this should be done in a way which is demonstrably safe for students and staff, which doesn't undermine public health messages, and which is done with the interest of school communities being first and foremost and not political expediency."

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