Many children may not return to school until mid-April if advice from public health and education experts is followed by the Scottish Government.
Gaps of three weeks between pupils’ return to school have been recommended by the government’s advisory sub-group on education and children’s issues.
With nursery, P1 to P3 and a limited number of senior phase pupils due back in class on February 22, that would mean the next group returning on March 15. Three weeks on and schools in the north-east will have broken off for Easter holidays.
If, as has been suggested, secondary pupils working towards qualifications were next on the priority list, those from P4 to S3 could remain at home until at least April 12 in Aberdeen and Moray and April 19 in Aberdeenshire.
The advisory group has also recommended two-metre distancing between secondary school pupils.
Education secretary John Swinney insisted decisions were yet to be made on the next stage of the phased return and that the advice, yet to be considered, was made purely on a clinical and epidemiological basis.
Tuesday’s announcement of a phased return from February 22 demonstrated, he said, the government’s commitment to prioritise restoration of face-to-face learning in the move out of lockdown.
He said: “Beyond that we do not have a timetable for the restoration of face-to-face learning other than the fact that we want to do it as quickly as is possible.
“We will do that informed by the high-quality clinical advice that is available to the government.
“On Wednesday we published the advice that I received from the education and children’s advisory group that looks specifically from a clinical and epidemiological perspective at the issues we have to think about in relation to the questions of the safety of resuming face-to-face schooling in Scotland.
The government will move as quickly as we can to reopen face-to-face schooling and it will have the highest priority within the agenda that we take forward.”
Education secretary John Swinney
“It’s really clear, well-argued advice and the assurance that I would give is that the government will move as quickly as we can to reopen face-to-face schooling and it will have the highest priority within the agenda that we take forward.”
What is in the advice?
The advisory note to ministers states that decisions on the nature and timing of each return phase will depend on the balance of harms, risks of the new Covid variant and the benefits, risks and needs associated with youngsters returning to school.
It says: “However, the cycle of Covid-19 infection and hospitalisation necessitates a period of three weeks between each phase of return to in-person learning, in order to assess the impact fully.”
It also states: “Any relaxation of measures should be undertaken in a staged/progressive way, enabling time for the education system to plan for each step change and to monitor its impacts, and should be cognisant of the need for stability and sustainability of the approach.”
The group suggests phases of return should be decided on factors including transmission risks, educational and wider health harms and benefits, and confidence in mitigations.
Since the start of this term, only vulnerable children and children of key workers have attended school, with remote learning in place for the majority of pupils.
The phased return for some from February 22 is dependent on infection rates and will be confirmed on February 16.