Local authorities had devoted a “tremendous amount of work” to preparing for a controversial blended learning approach. This would have seen pupils in school for just two or three days week to minimise the risk of Covid infection, with the remainder of the time spent at home getting lessons remotely.
But the U-turn was welcomed by senior council leaders as the “best-case scenario” for pupils.
Mr Swinney said there had now been a “sustained reduction” in levels of Covid-19 across the country, which enabled him to announce that children would return to the classroom full time from 11 August.
Jim Clocherty, education convener at Inverclyde Council, said yesterday he had not been expecting the announcement.
“It came as a wee bit of a bolt out of the blue,” he told BBC Radio Scotland.
“We’ve been working on the current scientific advice that we’ve got from the government. I think it came as a wee bit of a surprise to all.”
He added: “There was an absolutely tremendous amount of work done and obviously we had done this with the full backing of the parents as well, so in Inverclyde we’ve had that great relationship with our parents, with our unions to actually achieve what we did achieve and what we thought we were going back to in August. It really is a testament to them all that we were able to do that.”
Karen Conaghan, convener of education at West Dunbartonshire Council, described the decision as a “surprise, but welcome”.
“A lot of work has gone into what we thought was the worst-case scenario, but now it looks like we’re seeing the best-case scenario, which is getting our children and young people back into their familiar environments where they are comfortable,” she said.
“It’s been months of really hard planning and everything that has gone in before. It’s all been a partnership, we’ve had everybody involved in education working together – our education officers, our head teachers, our classroom teachers. Everybody who makes our schools run smoothly.
“There’s been so much work gone in to make sure we had a safe environment for our pupils to go back to.
“I know there will be some frustration and some people will feel that work has gone to waste, but we don’t know where we are yet. There is that note of caution that if we all keep along the same trajectory then yes, we will be back in schools, that the numbers will continue to drop of the virus in the community. But we do need to make sure that we have these plans in place if we’re not able to get back.”
Mr Swinney said yesterday that Scotland could be “very significantly” into the final phase of easing lockdown by the time pupils go back to school in August.
He said he would send his son to school on 11 August – unless clinical advice recommends otherwise.
Mr Swinney said he would make that decision despite his wife Elizabeth being in the shielding category due to having multiple sclerosis.
The education secretary had previously warned it was “unlikely” schools would return to normal within the next academic year earlier this month.
Blended learning will be the government’s “contingency” if it is deemed unsafe for schools to reopen without social distancing, Mr Swinney has now said.
Opposition politicians branded the move the “mother and father of ministerial climb-downs”, and accused the government of a “screeching U-turn”.
But Mr Swinney insisted the change in stance was possible because of “a sustained reduction in the level of infection in our society”.
He said “faster progress” in containing the virus was being made than ministers had envisaged when the four-phase route map out of lockdown was announced in May, insisting “we are in a brighter position than we were then”.
Mr Swinney added: “We have also seen rapid progress being able to be made in the relaxation of lockdown, because of the level of compliance from members of the public.
“As a consequence of that we assess that by the time the schools are due to come back in August, we will be very significantly into phase four of our route map, and as a consequence of that there is every reason why we should try to resume full-time education for all students within Scotland.”
Scotland is in the second phase of easing lockdown restrictions, and Mr Swinney said the relaxation of measures had “thankfully” so far not resulted in a rise in infection levels.
“People have accepted the relaxation of lockdown, they have continued to comply with the general measures that are in place to reduce infectiousness and as a consequence we find ourselves in a stronger position,” he said.
“So we now feel safer to make that judgment that we can restore full-time education in August.”
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