John Swinney has spoken of his “anxiety” over a potential full time return to schools ahead of the final government decision this week.
In a virtual meeting of the Education and Skills Committee, the Education Secretary addressed concerns over the potential health risks of pupils returning to classrooms full time when the new school year gets under way.
In response to a question from Liberal Democrat MSP Beatrice Wishart, who grilled Mr Swinney on the speed at which official advice appears to change given developments in cases and infection rates, he admitted he had his concerns.
He said: “It is not a concession but rather I am happy to say that I have some anxiety about the reopening of schools because of the degree of change this represents in the arrangements that we have within our society.
“We’ve been in a situation for four months of really limited contact between individuals and gatherings and the reopening of schools will be a significant step out of lockdown.
“So I readily acknowledge the importance of having good, clear advice that is available to school staff across the country and I’m confident that what the education recovery group has worked on, it will be able to deliver that.”
The Scottish cabinet is set make a final decision on the full time re-opening of schools when they meet on Wednesday, with the First Minister updating parliment on the developments the following day.
It is not a concession but rather I am happy to say that I have some anxiety about the reopening schools because of the degree of change this represents in the arrangements that we have within our society. ”
John Swinney, Scottish Government Education Secretary
And whilst it is widely expected schools will be given the green light for pupils to return full time in August, Swinney stressed that it will only happen if ministers deem the prevalence of the virus to be low enough.
He said: “The re-opening of schools is the highest priority and it will weigh heavily on the decisions the cabinet makes on Wednesday.
“We look at a variety of data about the prevalence of the virus in the community and the judgement the government has to make over whether it is safe to relax the lockdown is a very difficult one.
“But I would make the point that the government has taken significant steps to relax the lockdown in other sectors and we must look very carefully to see if that has had an effect on the prevalence of the virus.
“We could see that it results in an increase in prevalence and that would undermine our ability top re-open schools.”
When pressed on what measures were in place to pick up on any outbreaks of the virus in schools, Mr Swinney highlighted the trace and contact system already in place across Scotland.
He added: “Our guidance makes clear that if there are two positive cases in a school within a 14 day period, then that would be defined as there being an incident and there would be a necessity for the school to contact the health protection teams available in all localities in Scotland.”
“On a daily basis when the info arises about positive cases, there is information sought by our health protection teams about any possible clustering of activity and that’s been at the core of our response, most recently seen in Lanarkshire.”