John Swinney says parents won't be punished for not sending children back to school - but could older children have to wear face coverings?

Protection measures will be discussed with teaching unions

Parents will not be punished if they are too concerned about coronavirus to send their children back to school after the summer holidays, Education Secretary John Swinney has pledged.

On a radio phone-in today, Mr Swinney also suggested older pupils could be asked to wear face coverings and said there would be talks with the teaching unions on questions like physical distancing between staff and pupils.

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And he said scientific advice would be sought on the possibiliy of perspex screens as protection in classrooms.

Schools in Edinburgh are due to go back full-time on August 12Schools in Edinburgh are due to go back full-time on August 12
Schools in Edinburgh are due to go back full-time on August 12
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Mr Swinney announced on Tuesday that schools could return full-time for all pupils on 12 August instead of adopting a mix of home and school learning,

The move followed an outcry from parents over plans being drawn up by councils for pupils to be in class for as little as one day a week as part of the “blended learning” model.

Mr Swinney said the change was made because of a reduction of the prevalence of Covid-19 in Scotland, but warned: “If we don’t manage to sustain that reduction, if we see a flare up in coronavirus again, the likelihood of schools opening full time for 100 per cent of pupils diminishes in August.”

Asked when a final decision would be made, he said: “I don’t think we could resume full-time schooling if we didn’t have a green light by July 30. That feels like the last point at which we could say we’re going ahead with this or we’re not going ahead with this.”

On the question of parents facing punishment for not sending children back to school, he said the law was clear that parents had a legal duty to send their children to school but that they would not be punished for not doing so.

He said: “In the circumstances we’re in we’ve got to understand and try to reassure parents - and if we can’t quite reassure them and give them the confidence it’s safe for their children to return to school I think we’ve got to work sympathetically with them through those issues. We need to work with parents to properly address the anxieties and worries parents feel at this time.”

He was asked about comments from the EIS union on the need for protective measures to be considered, such as face coverings and physical distancing.

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Mr Swinney said: “We will engage constructively with the teaching unions on all these questions. We’ve got to have confidence among the teaching staff.”

He acknowledged he would not be comfortable with his own nine-year-old son being expected to wear a facemask for seven hours. a day, but said he did not think it would be necessary for such young children to wear a mask.

“I think when you get slightly older you get to some different ground because you’re essentially talking about young adults,” he said.

Asked if that meant face coverings were not appropriate for primary pupils, but were a possibility in high schools he said: “I think there is an issue the older young people become, yes.”

And on perspex shields as protection in the classroom, he said: “Our plans are not predicated on there being any physical distancing between pupils to enable schools to return full time but there may be issues about it between staff and pupils.

“These are all issues that will be explored in detail by the scientific advisers.”

At the Scottish Government’s daily coronavirus briefing yesterday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon rejected accusations from the EIS that the Scottish Government’s decision to plan for a full time return to school in August was “political”.

The union had criticised the government’s announcement on schools, stating it did not meet the EIS’s three main red-lines to be met ahead of a return to schools.

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Ms Sturgeon rejected accusations that the plans were “half-baked” and said the decision was made because the science had changed rather than due to political pressure.

She said: “It is probably as close to being as unfair a thing as anyone could say. We are dealing with an unpredictable virus so you can characterise it as being half-baked and not having our ducks in a row but actually what it means is we don’t know exactly what we are dealing with in terms of the levels of infection and the transmission of the virus.

“We can do certain things to control the virus but we know that we don’t have 100 per cent certainty or 100 per cent guarantee that we will be able to keep it at a low level.

“If I was to come right now to a fixed and settled plan for what we were doing seven weeks away, if I was to say to you here is the fully baked plan right now and that will not change, then I would not be fulfilling my responsibilities because we are not dealing with a situation that is fixed and unchangeable.

“That flexibility we need in all of our planning right now I am afraid is just a fact of life right now.

“All governments have to plan for the scenario they think they will be in and up until recently we thought that we would be in a scenario with infection levels too high to have full time education, now we think we are in a different place so we are planning for full time education.”

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