Scots pupils to mix school and home learning under radical education plan

Scots pupils may face a part-time return to school in “week-at-a-time blocks” under a radical overhaul of the education system being considered by the Scottish Government in the battle against Covid-19.

It would mean a blend of “in-school and in-home learning” for youngsters to ensure social distancing is maintained in classrooms when restrictions are finally eased, according to a new do cument published by ministers on the options to take Scotland out of lockdown.

The document also sets out the prospect of Scots being allowed to leave home more often and meet up with families, as well as key businesses reopening again.

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The paper – entitled Covid-19: A Framework for Decision-Making – was unveiled by Nicola Sturgeon yesterday as coronavirus cases continue to decline gradually in Scotland.

Children of key workers comply with social distancing rules while attending a hub school at Drummond Community High School. Pupils may mix at-school and home learning on return under Scottish Government plans. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

The First Minister said Scotland was “heading in the direction of an easing” of restrictions.

But the country is not yet at the stage where this can happen imminently, with the existing restrictions likely to be extended for another three weeks at a meeting of the UK emergency body Cobra tomorrow. “The hard fact is we must see further restrictions in new cases, hospital and ICU admissions and deaths to be sure the overall level of infection and the R number are lower than they are now,” Ms Sturgeon said yesterday.

“That means for the moment we do need to stick with the current lockdown restrictions.”

She said the “severity of restrictions we are living under” cannot continue indefinitely. There are about 26,000 people in Scotland believed to be currently infectious, with the reproduction rate – or R number – between 0.7 and one.

A total of 1,620 patients have now died in Scotland after testing positive for coronavirus, up 44 from 1,576 on Monday.

The First Minister said 12,437 people have tested positive for the virus in Scotland, up by 171 from 12,266 the day before. There are 104 people in intensive care with coronavirus or its symptoms, an increase of five on Monday, while 1,656 people are in hospital with confirmed or suspected Covid-19, a decrease of 64.

Since 5 March, 2,847 people who have tested positive for coronavirus have been able to leave hospital.

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The First Minister insisted that progress was being made in suppressing the virus and hinted that restrictions could be eased if Scots stick with the restrictions.

“What we will see over the next few weeks is us – carefully, gradually and all the caveats I’ve put in today – but starting to ease things up,” she said.

“Stick with it now, then we’re heading in the direction of an easing, not a tightening.”

A number of options for easing the restrictions are set out in the paper published by the Scottish Government. It warns that it is unlikely that schools will reopen fully in the “foreseeable future” and they may not open at all in the “near future”.

But it suggested two possible options for returning pupils.

The first would be a phased return, with priority given to pupils deemed to be vulnerable as well as those “in transition” between phases of education.

The second option would be an overhaul of the education system, with pupils experiencing more of a mix between home learning and in-school learning to allow social distancing to be adhered to.

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The staggered approach on reopening will allow for the “deep cleaning” of schools between groups to suppress any future spread of the virus.

According to modelling by the Scottish Government, a premature reopening of schools could lead to more than 30,000 people requiring hospital treatment for Covid-19 in a worst-case scenario.

The forecast came as teaching unions have warned against a premature reopening of schools amid fears it could be “potentially disastrous” and result in another spike in Covid-19 cases.

The British Irish Group of Teacher Unions (BIGTU), representing one million teachers, has raised concerns in a letter to Scottish education secretary John Swinney and other administrations around the UK and Ireland.

The letter has been signed by the heads of Scotland’s two main teaching unions who urged “significant caution in any consideration of reopening schools”.

Among Scottish signatories are Larry Flanagan, general secretary of EIS, and Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association.

Mr Flanagan said: “Re-opening schools ahead of adequate ‘testing, tracing and isolating capacity’ would be potentially disastrous for Scotland’s efforts to control the spread of the virus. Teachers and parents will need to be absolutely assured that schools are safe places before they reopen.

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Whilst the Scottish Government has sought to offer reassurance around this area, and in Ireland the government has announced September as its restart date, the UK Government seems overly keen to reopen schools as part of its economic recovery plan.

“We should not be bounced in Scotland into any similar rash approach.”

The document published yesterday also looks at options for businesses resuming, with industries such as retail, manufacturing and construction to be prioritised in the economy’s exit from lockdown, along with others where it is difficult to work remotely.

But this would only happen when workplaces can be made safe. And staff who are able to work from home are likely to be asked to do so for a long period, according to the First Minister, perhaps until a vaccine can be found.

The document suggests the length of the current mandated exercise could be increased, along with allowing people to socialise within “bubbles” of named people outside their own household.

Extension of the physical exercise allowance would still require people to stay in their local area, within their own household group and maintaining current distancing and hygiene protocols, the paper said.

When the virus is suitably suppressed, the Scottish Government is looking into allowing people to increase their immediate circle.

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During questioning at her daily coronavirus briefing, the First Minister would not be drawn on how many people would be allowed in the bubbles.

The paper says: “It is possible that this option would be introduced first for outdoor meetings, ahead of any change to permit indoor meetings of the bubble.”

The document says existing hygiene and social distancing guidance should continue to be undertaken within the group. It adds the shielded group of people, who were identified as having a vulnerability and asked to self-isolate for up to 12 weeks, would not be included in the scheme and pledged to have an “honest conversation” with those who are shielded.

Construction, manufacturing and retail will be the major focus of the reopening of businesses when it is safe to do so, according to the paper, as well as “elements of outdoor and rural work”.

The paper concedes restrictions will remain on businesses for “some time to come”.

The paper also outlines options for the return of NHS and care services that were scrapped due to the outbreak, including elective operations and screenings for diseases such as cancer.

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