Campaigners have welcomed the news that the youngest pupils are likely to return to school later this month but said the continuing limbo is “devastating” for older children.
UsForThem Scotland, a campaign group for parents, said more needs to be done to support those who have to continue to learn at home after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced that some pupils will return to Scottish schools from February 22, subject to confirmation on February 16.
Meanwhile, teaching union the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) warned that virus levels must fall “substantially” before the plans for a phased return for pupils can be confirmed.
Ms Sturgeon said that under the phased return, pupils in Primary 1 to Primary 3 will be allowed back into school, as will those in the senior phase of secondary school, while all children under school age in early learning and childcare will return.
However, older pupils will only be able to go back to ensure practical work important to achieving qualifications is completed and only between 5% and 8% of any school’s roll should be able to return.
Jo Bisset, organiser for UsForThem Scotland, said: “We’re glad the government has finally acknowledged the damage caused to young children by school and nursery closures.
“For parents of younger kids, the announcement represents a long-awaited piece of good news.
“However, this unbearable limbo for thousands of others looks set to continue now for months, and that is devastating for families.”
Ms Bisset added: “Every day, more and more evidence is emerging of the harms being caused to children and families of being out of school, and more voices are speaking up.
“Only the government has the power to make the necessary changes to fix this.”
The First Minister also announced that the Scottish Government intends that those who work in schools, and in early learning and childcare settings attached to schools, will be offered at-home testing twice a week, as will all senior-phase secondary school students.
The EIS welcomed the rollout of regular testing but called for caution over the return to school.
General secretary Larry Flanagan said: “Clearly, any school return remains contingent upon continued progress on community suppression of the virus and that is not a given so we need to see infection levels coming down substantially before the return date can be confirmed.
“Whilst a phased return is a more cautious approach, we are surprised that the First Minister did not discuss the need for physical distancing amongst P1-P3 pupils, given that she clearly stated the new variant impacts on all age groups, whereas previously younger children seemed to be less directly involved in transmission than adults.
“The EIS believes that a blended learning model, i.e. implementing physical distancing, would be a safer strategy to deploy and we would need to see strong scientific evidence to justify the Government’s approach. Frankly, in the absence of such evidence, this model creates unnecessary risk for staff and pupils.”
Scottish Labour leadership candidate Monica Lennon MSP called for more resources to support those learning at home.
She said: “It is right to take a precautionary approach to resuming in-school education for all pupils. A phased return is the right approach, subject to clinical and scientific evidence.
“As well as speeding up the vaccination rollout, the SNP government must use testing and tracing much more effectively to hunt down the virus.
“The SNP must also urgently increase support to children and young people who still don’t have the necessary IT equipment and resources at home. Every day that this is delayed is increasing inequality.”
Deputy First Minister and Education Secretary John Swinney said: “I appreciate only too well the burden being placed on many families as they navigate this Covid pandemic.
“I am also acutely aware of the need to maintain teaching and learning wherever possible. In doing so, the health and wellbeing of our children, young people and staff is paramount.
“My priority has been to ensure a safe return for children and young people to school and nursery as quickly as possible. That is why the steps that have been announced today are guided by the advice of the chief medical officer and public health experts.
“Children and young people will begin a gradual, phased return to classrooms supported by a testing regime and enhanced guidance. A sense of caution underpins the plans unveiled today, but this is essential as we work to return to full-time teaching in schools.”
The Scottish Government said its £25 million investment to address digital exclusion has to date supported local authorities to provide more than 63,000 devices and over 11,000 “connectivity solutions” to disadvantaged children and young people.
It said low income families with children and young people leaving care who are digitally excluded are being helped to get online with the assistance of a £15 million investment, part of the Scottish Government’s Connecting Scotland programme, and it is distributing 23,000 Chromebook and iPads and two years unlimited data as well as support to get online safely and securely.
The Scottish Government said that a new £45 million package of support, announced recently, will help local authorities to provide support to schools and families as they deal with the challenges of remote learning during lockdown.