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Education / ‘Soft start’ planned for return to school in August

Education and families committee chairman George Smith concedes there is ‘still so much uncertainty’ for officials and staff

The Happyhansel Primary School in Walls. Photo: Malcolmson Architects

EDUCATION officials are planning a “soft start” when children return to school full-time in mid-August.

Children services director Helen Budge told a meeting of Shetland Islands Council (SIC) on Thursday that this could help pupils who have spent the last number of months learning from home adjust back to life in the classroom.

She said children’s mental health and wellbeing was key – especially for those in a transition period between key stages such as primary to secondary.

Chairman of the SIC’s education and families committee George Smith, meanwhile, made a lengthy speech to councillors on the journey staff have been on in the last few months – and claimed there was a lack of consultation from the Scottish Government with local authorities regarding the return to school full-time.

In line with Scottish guidance, Shetland’s school pupils are due to return to the classroom full-time from 11 August with no social distancing, if the progress against coronavirus continues.

Education and families committee chairman George Smith.

This is despite local authorities across Scotland spending weeks planning for a blended approach of remote learning and face-to face teaching.

The blended learning plan put together by Shetland Islands Council will still be used as a contingency, and it was approved by councillors at Thursday’s full council meeting.

It would have cost nearly £8 million to implement, with classes sizes and school layouts having to be revamped.

Councillors were told that more guidance on the full-time return to school, announced last month by education secretary John Swinney, would only come in a few weeks’ time.

North mainland member Emma Macdonald questioned how lunch times would work if school returns full-time, as the blended approach recommended pupils would remain on site to limit contact with others.

Budge highlighted that mass gatherings outside were still prohibited, but she said things weren’t set in stone yet with regards to lunchtimes.

“We have yet to tease that out, how dining will be delivered,” she said.

Following a question from central member Davie Sandison Budge also said that the introduction of new school bus contracts would be moved forward to 11 August.

There was widespread praise of education staff over the last few months, with westside member Catherine Hughson saying: “I think everybody has done the best that they can.”

Lerwick member Stephen Leask, meanwhile, warned against the potential for education staff to suffer from stress.

“It’s important that we have to make sure the staff are well cared for,” he said.

John Swinney cutting the ribbon at the Anderson High School site. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland NewsEducation secretary John Swinney cutting the ribbon at the Anderson High School site in September 2018. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

Education and families committee chairman George Smith, however, led the debate with a lengthy speech as he reflected on the journey children’s services has been on since March.

He said the choice to close Shetland’s schools before the rest of the country was “absolutely the right decision”.

Smith felt that it made a “significant difference” in the management of the pandemic locally.

He paid tribute to Budge’s “can do, will do attitude”, but he also praised staff from teachers coordinating home learning to those in janitorial and catering who continued in their roles under different circumstances providing childcare for key workers.

Smith added that he does not “think anybody could overestimate the amount of work” that went into the blended learning plan, with staff going beyond their contracted hours to piece it together.

“And then everything changed on the 25 June,” he said, referring to the announcement from deputy first minister Swinney on the full-time return to school.

“Whether that was because of the intervention of Jack McConnell, or maybe perhaps the Edinburgh parents, when they realised that the parameters that were in place would mean that their children would maybe only be in school for one week in three.

“People can draw their own conclusions as to why Mr Swinney did this.”

Helen Budge.

Smith added that first minister Nicola Sturgeon has “always maintained that her approach to dealing with the virus has been one of not being political at all”.

“But she has consistently displayed annoyance and disappointment when decisions that have been taken by UK Government without, in her view, adequate prior discussion or agreement with the devolved administrations, so I would like to reflect that back to the first minister and the deputy first minister,” he said.

“Despite the education recovery group, which had representatives of COSLA and trade unions, working together with the Scottish Government on the way forward on this blended learning approach, the deputy first minister felt it was just fine to make his announcement without any prior consultation with these representatives.”

Smith added that despite this, “everybody would agree that we want to see our pupils back in school full-time”.

“Our staff will demonstrate their professionalism and commitment to pupils and do everything needed to ensure that pupils can return to face to face education as soon as possible after the summer holidays. But that has to be in a safe way.”

He acknowledged there will be some children who will be a “peerie bit nervous” about coming back to school, while there will be youngsters who have suffered from gaps in learning over the last few months might need extra support.

Smith warned that there is still no real clarity on future social distancing requirements for transport, and adults working in schools.

“There’s a lot of unanswered questions and there’s guidance needed,” he said.

“I really feel for the staff. They’ve worked so hard over the last few months and are now about to go on a much deserved summer holiday, but there’s still so much uncertainty on what the situation will be on their return to school.”