Older and younger pupils could go back to schools first in phased return

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JOHN Swinney has indicated that the youngest and oldest pupils could return to classrooms first as part of a phased schools return being mulled over by the Scottish Government.

The Education Secretary stressed that re-opening schools when it is deemed safe to do so is “unlikely to be a binary choice – either everybody in or everybody out”.

Mr Swinney, who is also Deputy First Minister, said that pupils with additional support needs could also return in the first phase of re-opening classrooms, acknowledging their situation while learning from home can be “really quite challenging”.

That comes after Kindred, an advocacy organisation supporting parents of children with complex needs and the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition warned that “children’s physical and mental health is degenerating because they are simply unable to maintain therapy and support within the home environment”.

The groups have called on the Scottish Government to prioritise re-opening special schools.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed on Tuesday that schools will remain closed to the majority of youngsters until at least the middle of February – with lockdown restrictions currently in place across most of the country also extended until then.

 Coronavirus: School closures extended until mid-February

The Scottish Government will issue a further update on the situation at the start of next month, Ms Sturgeon said.

Only vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers are currently able to attend classes, while other children learn at home.

Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme, Mr Swinney stressed the Government does not want to have restrictions in place “for any longer than is actually necessary”.

But he said that with a new, faster spreading strain of coronavirus having caused a rise in infections and increasing numbers of hospital patients, the NHS is “carrying an absolutely colossal burden and we have to take great care to make sure that burden remains sustainable”.

Levels of coronavirus cases, the prevalence of the new strain of the virus and hospital numbers will all be considered when deciding if schools can resume normal operations, Mr Swinney said.

When all youngsters are in school, he said this contributes about 0.2 to the R number in Scotland – the average number of people infected by each person who contracts Covid-19.

 Coronavirus: Demand for mass hiring of teachers as pupils struggle

He added: “Obviously if we have part of the school infrastructure operating, that contributes a smaller amount and we have to making judgments based on the prevalence of the virus.”

It is likely there will be a phased return to schooling, he continued.

Mr Swinney said: “We are looking at all possible avenues to secure the resumption of face-to-face learning and we are looking at the way in which that might be delivered.

“We have said already that this is unlikely to be a binary choice – either everybody in or everybody out.

“It is much more likely to be a phased return where we will look at particular cohorts of pupils.

“The groups we are particularly looking at are the very youngest pupils in early learning and in early primary, where the analysis from our clinical advisers is these groups are unlikely to be transmitting the virus.”

Ministers are also considering if senior secondary school pupils who are studying for qualifications could return earlier.

Mr Swinney added: “We want to make sure they have access to all the learning and teaching they require to command those certificates.”

But overall, he stressed: “It really depends on the prevalence of the virus and the degree to which we have got what I would describe as headroom within the numbers to see a resumption of some parts of the education system.”

Scottish Conservative education spokesperson, Jamie Greene, said: “After the First Minister said yesterday she could shed no light whatsoever on a phased approach to re-opening schools, the Deputy First Minister has now drip fed vague plans on a radio interview the very next day.

“This endless confusion and lack of clarity is helping nobody. Parents are simply seeking clear messaging from the SNP Government over their plans for schools and what it will mean for them and their children.

“Ten months into the pandemic, asking for a route map towards getting our young people back into classrooms, when it is safe to do so, is surely not too much to ask of the SNP Education Secretary.

“In the meantime, the SNP Government has woefully under planned and under resourced remote learning and left many beleaguered teachers and parents struggling to deliver meaningful but vital education.”

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