The education secretary has unveiled plans for a return to full-time schooling by August, after claiming the government was “surprised” at the decline of the virus since May.
John Swinney made an emergency statement to the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday in which he announced the major policy change, stating that schools should prepare to go back on this basis if progress continues to be made on suppressing the virus.
In delivering his statement, the education secretary also revealed that £100 million would be made available over the next two years to help support the return to school and help children “recover any lost ground”.
Mr Swinney has drawn criticism over the last couple of weeks after stating that schools across Scotland were “unlikely to return to normality for the duration of the 2020-21 academic year“, with pupils returning to school around half the week.
However, speaking in the Scottish Parliament, the education secretary said although the outlook on May 21 was “bleak”, his government had since been “surprised” by how sharply the virus has declined in the last month.
If we stay on track, if we all continue to do what is right, and if we can further suppress this terrible virus, the government believes we should prepare for children to be able to return to school full-time from August.”
John Swinney, education secretary.
He said: “We have seen Scotland make significant progress. There are now only 2,000 infectious people in Scotland, a reduction of around 90% since May.
“There has been a sustained downward trend in Covid-19 deaths and cases in intensive care now stand at a fraction of what they were.
“If we stay on track, if we all continue to do what is right, and if we can further suppress this terrible virus, the government believes we should prepare for children to be able to return to school full-time from August.”
However, Mr Swinney said this remains “conditional and dependent” on ongoing scientific and health advice and emphasised that the ‘blended learning’ model remains a back-up option that the government “may need to enact” should the virus run out of control again.
He added that when the government first made its plans, in May, for pupils to return to school on a ‘blended learning‘ model, they “frankly could not have imagined we would have made as much progress in virus suppression as we have”.
Plans are also being drawn up for the 2021 exam diet to go ahead but Mr Swinney said there may be a delay by a “matter of weeks”.
However, opposition colleagues hit out at the approach taken by the Scottish Government, with Conservative MSP Jamie Greene claiming parents had been left “scunnered” by the initial proposals when they were revealed in May.
He added: “There has been a vacuum in leadership and handling of this issue.
“Today’s U-turn has been forced on the government after relentless campaigning from all quarters, political, academic, charitable but most importantly by parents themselves, to whom we owe the most credit in all of this.”
Meanwhile, Iain Gray, Scottish Labour’s education spokesman said Mr Swinney had said just 10 days ago that the blended learning model would last a year, adding that “now, at the last possible moment” the education secretary had come up with a “completely new plan”.
Scottish Greens education spokesman Ross Greer MSP emphasised the importance of introducing regular testing for school staff and called on the education secretary to confirm when this could become a reality.
Mr Swinney said he was “very supportive” of testing to build confidence among those in the teaching profession, adding that it would form part of the “detailed” work being carried out by the newly formed education recovery group.
He added: “A great number of people will be breathing a sigh of relief at the announcement that pupils will return to school full-time in August but for teachers, school support staff and their families, the anxiety will now have dramatically increased.
“The Greens have proposed regular testing of all school staff. So has Scottish Government adviser Professor Devi Sridhar.
“I’m glad that Mr Swinney is now supportive of this proposal but he needs to confirm immediately that it will be a reality when schools return in August.
“Children aren’t immune to this virus and adult members of staff certainly are not.
“They deserve this reassurance before they go back to the classroom.”
‘Sigh of relief’
Meanwhile, Colin Borland, director of devolved nations for the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), said employers would “breathe a sigh of relief”, following the U-turn.
He said: “The education secretary has made the right call by ensuring that schools will offer full-time education after the summer holidays.
“The small business community would urge the Scottish Government to use this momentum and back day nurseries and other childcare providers so they can also open full-time on August 11, or earlier, as recommended in our recent FSB report.”