When 700,000 Scottish children start returning to school from Tuesday, they’ll have to find new ways to mark their excitement because teenagers will be asked to avoid hugs and high-fives.
Under a new normal that teachers and parents across the UK will be watching closely, there will be one-way corridors, hand-washing stations and temporary classrooms erected in libraries, gym halls and dining rooms.
Scottish ministers and council leaders have decided to reopen the country’s 2,500 schools in phases. In some areas, the youngest will go back first. In others, schools will use the alphabet to split up children by surname, letting half a year in one day and the other half in the next. Some schools are changing the start of lessons. By 18 August, however, every school in Scotland should be back full time, weeks before those in other parts of the UK resume.
Teachers’ leaders and parents’ groups are unanimous in their belief that returning to full-time schooling after five monthsof lockdown is essential for children’s education, welfare and mental health.
Anxieties are heightened, however, by controversy over the marking down of school qualifications, recent images of teenagers massing for beach parties and in parks, and the new Covid-19 outbreak in Aberdeen.
There are fears as to whether the virus will spread, whether physical distancing rules will be followed, whether plans for surveillance testing are sufficient and whether the Scottish government’s decision to abandon its original plans to use blended learning – where schooling involves a mix of in-class and online teaching – in favour of a full return to school, will prove correct.
John Swinney, Scotland’s education secretary and deputy first minister, has found an extra £75m to recruit 1,400 extra teachers and £50m for councils to help fund school alterations, extra school transport and improved cleaning. There will be an enhanced coronavirus testing and surveillance regime, but not before schools resume.
Larry Flanagan, the general secretary of the EIS, Scotland’s largest teachers’ union, said his inbox had been flooded with messages from anxious and angry teachers. “They’re now facing a backlash from teachers,” he said. “My inbox has been fuller in the last few days than it has been at any time.”
Teachers’ biggest complaint focuses on the Scottish government’s decision not to enforce physical distancing for pupils in secondary schools, where class sizes will often remain as large as 30, despite some evidence that older teenagers are as likely as adults to transmit the virus. Teachers will be expected to stay 2 metres away from pupils and to wear masks when in close proximity with other adults.
Flanagan said his members were bemused that schools were being treated differently from shops and restaurants. Government guidance says children should be told to wear face coverings if they go to a shop during lunch break, but not in school.
“Why do children have to wear face coverings in Tesco but not in the classroom? It’s those kinds of inconsistencies; there have been very cautious messages from the Scottish government on everything, yet in schools that caution seems to have been abandoned a little bit,” he said.
The government recommends aiming for smaller classes of 20, but many schools are too full or too small to accommodate many more classes, he said. Ministers have rejected proposals to expand the school estate by using other buildings, or hiring around 3,500 former teachers who had offered to help.
“We would’ve started with a blended learning approach and built up capacity. I think that would be more reassuring than what, to lots of people, feels like a big-bang approach because it fits the government’s political agenda,” Flanagan said.
Eileen Prior, the executive director of Connect, an umbrella body for Scottish parent councils, said parents were less concerned about children returning full time than being properly informed and consulted. In many places, councils and headteachers were failing on both counts, and parents were worried about safe school buses and lunches, she said.
“What they need is clear information, in a timely fashion, and reassurance that everything has been thought of,. Frankly, what we’re hearing from parents is a very, very varied picture. In some places there’s a lack of communication and a lack of clarity.”
Parents were also worried about support for children stressed by the return, she said. Flanagan said 10% of children had been shielding during lockdown, and that some lived with elderly or sick relatives and would be anxious about bringing the virus home.
“We can’t simply expect children to rock up on Tuesday and Wednesday and be where they were in March. They’re not going to be,” Prior said. “We have to communicate effectively and listen to them and to families about their situation.”
Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said on Thursday that her government would act swiftly to suppress outbreaks in order to protect the school reopening programme. Aberdeen’s schools are still expected to reopen by 18 August despite the situation in the city. Her advisers and ministers would be closely studying scientific and medical evidence. If that changed, so would her government’s polices, she said.
“It’s important to make this point clearly to parents, as well as to young people, that we would not be advising the return of schools from next week if we didn’t believe that was a safe thing to do, with all the mitigating measures we’re asking schools to put in place,” she said.
A new normal in Scottish schools: five main policy points
The school day
Staggered start and end times, staggered lunch hours and shorter classes to avoid crowds at the school gates, in corridors and lunch halls; assemblies cancelled and PE classes only outdoors.
None between children at primary schools, but secondary school pupils will be asked to avoid close contact, including hugs and high-fives; teachers will be asked to stay 2m from pupils, who should not sit face to face at shared desks.
Only required for teachers in close proximity to another adult for longer than 15 minutes or for children clinically advised to wear one. They will be allowed for pupils and staff on a voluntary basis. They could be encouraged if an outbreak emerges in the community
Ministers rejected union and political pressure to require smaller classes of 20 or less, partly because of costs and practicality. Schools are only encouraged to aim for smaller classes.
A new surveillance testing programme for schools is planned so health officials can detect outbreaks or increases in infections early. It is expected to involve selecting schools for regular monitoring. Symptomatic teachers will get priority testing, and individual schools may be closed if a large outbreak occurs.