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Coronavirus / Schools well prepared for future spikes in Covid-19, SIC director says

SCHOOLS are prepared for a second wave of coronavirus or localised outbreaks among pupils, according to Shetland Islands Council’s (SIC) children’s services director.

Helen Budge told a meeting of the SIC’s education and families committee on Monday that models are in place should there be a need to close schools again.

Children's services director Helen Budge.Children’s services director Helen Budge.

Budge said schools are still keeping tabs on the online learning system Glow, which was used while pupils were being taught from home during lockdown, in case it needs to be brought back into action.

“There are preparing for that should it happen,” she said.

The meeting also heard that the additional cost incurred by the children’s services department as a result of Covid-19 sits at £1.4 million.

Finance manager Jamie Manson said this included establishing childcare for critical workers and hubs for the isles’ more vulnerable youngsters.

The overall additional cost to the council to date is over £2 million.

At Monday’s meeting staff in education were praised for navigating through constantly evolving advice from the Scottish Government over the last number of months, as well as for delivering teaching online while schools were shut.

Reflecting on the last few months, Budge said “things changed at a speed I have never experienced before”.

Committee chairman George Smith said staff made a “critical contribution” to help young folk during lockdown, such as through the childcare for key workers.

Concerns were raised by south mainland Robbie McGregor, however, over connectivity should home learning be reintroduced if Covid-19 struck again.

“I have concerns about whether there’s going to be another spike in Covid,” he said, adding that in this case platforms like Glow will again be important.

“We have two models ready to happen should there be another spike here,” Budge replied.

One of which is the blended model of home and face to face teaching, but she acknowledged the roll-out of remote learning earlier this year was not without its pitfalls.

Part of this was poor broadband speeds in areas like the North Isles, with hard copies of learning packs given out instead.

Budge confirmed that the council has received 420 extra devices to help pupils with online learning thanks to Scottish Government funding.

A report to councillors said that blended learning could be “applied for pupils, year groups, individual schools or all schools within the local authority” in the event of future outbreaks.

A plan developed by the council on the full-time return to school said that “in the event of an outbreak involving two or more confirmed cases, it may be necessary to consider closure of the school or setting”.

Budge said trends in absences at schools may also play into the decision making.

The report said the Scottish Government retains the power to close schools for coronavirus related reasons by issuing an education closure direction, but the decision to close a school may be taken by the council in partnership with NHS Shetland.

A plan is in place for Shetland schools which will see any child being taken home immediately if they develop Covid-19 symptoms.

While they await collection the pupil should be taken away to a room away from others where they can isolate.

Staff would wear personal protective equipment if personal care is required, or if a distance of two metres cannot be maintained.

Budge told the meeting that “we are conscious we could very easily have another outbreak in Shetland”.

Following a question from Shetland MYSP Jonathan Dorrat, quality improvement officer Robin Calder confirmed that live lessons, on a voluntary basis, is something which has been agreed with local teaching unions should there be any school closures.

He said as contingency work is ongoing “live lessons and remote teaching is certainly central to our planning”.

Budge also told the meeting that following a change in guidance over face coverings in communal areas in schools and on transport, families who access free school meals will be given face masks.

The new guidance comes into force from today (31 August).

Each school in Shetland also as a supply of disposable face coverings following a delivery last week, Budge said.

She added that generally a lot of children are “delighted” to be back at school after months at home – with staff said to be happy too.

Lerwick South member Amanda Westlake is worried about the impact a three per cent council tax rise will have on the working poor.Lerwick South member Amanda Hawick. Photo: Shetland News

Lerwick councillor Amanda Hawick, however, said the message needs to get to any families struggling after lockdown that help is out there.

She suggested it was “really difficult” for parents to get information on what support is available.

Budge confirmed there had been a rise in parents seeking help.

“We have seen an increase in people coming forward for free school meals and clothing grants,” she said.

Budge added that a new government-funded school counselling service is getting underway soon and that may help to shed light on families who are finding life hard.

“Sometimes that’s when we become more aware of families that are struggling,” she said.

Lerwick councillor John Fraser, meanwhile, supported the idea of “return to work” interviews to assess how staff are coping if they are heading back to their employment, or if conditions have changed.

Davie Sandison, who represents Shetland Central, also asked how the short-term roll-out of provided packed lunches in schools was going while canteens remained shut.

Budge admitted that the take-up rate had dropped significantly, with many pupils taking in their own lunch.

Not everyone was entirely happy with what was on offer, she said, using the example of one young bairn not best pleased with finding brown bread in her packed lunch.