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Education / SIC to submit plan for reopening schools

Transport a major factor in planning for return of schools, says education and families committee chairman George Smith

SHETLAND Islands Council’s plan on how schools will operate from mid-August onwards is set to be submitted to the Scottish Government this week.

Education and families committee chairman George Smith said the deadline for submission was tomorrow (Wednesday).

Education and families committee chairman George Smith.

However, he warned on Tuesday morning that if the government guidance was subsequently changed, a “whole lot of work” would need to be done locally to tweak the plan.

Smith said education staff have already been working “flat out” on Shetland’s approach to blended learning of home schooling and teaching in class from 11 August onwards.

Orkney Islands Council (OIC), meanwhile, has called for the Scottish Government to consider regional approaches to allow pupils to get back into the classroom as soon as possible.

OIC leader James Stockan said last week that Orkney has had relatively few cases of Covid-19, and with concern over teacher numbers and “insufficient suitable space” for classes, he called for full in-school teaching to return “as early as possible in areas like Orkney”.

Smith said that desire to see children back in school reflects the “feeling of everybody” in Scotland.

In response to Stockan’s call, Smith added: “There’s an upside to regional variations, but there’s a downside as well, in the sense that if you don’t know what that regional situation is with say the R number or whatever, you’ve got to be able to balance that with getting folk feeling confident.

“So we’re working within the parameters that are currently set.”

The south mainland councillor said some of Shetland’s smaller schools could roll out 100 per cent in-class learning even with the two metre rule in place.

But in schools where the roll is larger, there is more of a problem.

“I thought the government thought it would be easy to get 50/50 [between home and in-school learning], but it’s not,” Smith said.

“We would have less than a handful [of schools] that we’d be able to get back to 100 per cent. The vast majority I think would be able to be back to 40 per cent at the two metres.”

One main factor in Shetland is transport, with the size of buses for instance making it difficult to implement physical distancing.

“Yesterday that was still having to be finalised, because the numbers that can go on the buses are quite limited,” Smith said.

The councillor stressed that the safety of pupils, staff and parents was the key factor in planning for schools reopening.

However, Smith said another issue is giving parents – and teachers – the confidence to safely return to school.

“If you add in the complexities of the practical planning, and the need to ensure that it is safe – the safety of pupils, staff and parents is the foremost,” he said.

“There’s a confidence issue, in terms of gaining the confidence of parents in the first place to put their children to school while the pandemic is still on. And there’s work to be done with staff to make sure they feel safe and protected.”

Smith said he is keen to see schools back, but “only when it’s safe”.

“There is no point in putting schools back and then having to close them down,” he added.

“We’ve got plans in place in terms of how we deal with an outbreak in the school, which does include having to close down if necessary.”

Smith admitted that the guidance from government changes at speed, and with a review of the two metre distancing rule taking place, there is in theory the potential for the local plan to be outdated shortly after going in front of councillors.

“If they are going to change the guidance or the parameters, then give us enough time to be able to reflect that,” he said.

“It may be that we have to go back to school on 11th of August with the plans that have already been worked up.

“The amount of hours that staff have put in, from Hayfield staff and transport staff, building staff…along with head teachers and teachers…to ask them then to do something different, it’s going to need a bit of time.”

Scottish Parliament election, 6 May 2021