Swinney: High school pupils may have to socially distance

He said secondary schools should take 'practical' steps to enable distancing 'wherever possible'.

Secondary school pupils might be expected to socially distance when schools return – but primary school pupils will not.

Education secretary gave the update to MSPs, saying high schools will likely be asked to take “practical” steps to ensure distancing between pupils “wherever possible” if they reopen full-time on August 11.

Previously, the Scottish Government’s scientific advisers suggested both primary and secondary phases of schooling could return without pupils having to socially distance.

But they had also noted the evidence for older pupils around coronavirus transmission was “less clear”.

The government is likely to take “extra precautions” regarding high school pupils when it publishes guidance next week on the return of schools, Swinney said on Thursday.

During the virtual session, he said: “After considering carefully that advice and the views of stakeholders, the education recovery group is developing guidance which involves taking extra precautions and envisages that secondary schools will be asked to take a practical approach to maintaining distancing between pupils wherever possible.”

He said changes could be made to classrooms to facilitate distancing – while ensuring capacity remains at the same level – or by “managing the flow of pupils and staff within schools”.

The guidance will be released by July 30, he said, with a final decision on the reopening of schools taken on July 29.

Swinney also used the update to announce a raft of cash injections into the education sector as it prepares for reopening.

Of the £100m funding package made available to the sector in June, the education secretary and deputy FM said £50m would be ring-fenced for the recruitment of teacher and support staff this academic year.

This means 850 more teachers and 200 more support staff will be brought into schools, he said.

A further £20m investment will go to councils to address practical issues around the reopening, such as the need for more intensive cleaning.

Swinney added that £3m will be given to local authorities to boost youth work services.

Responding to a question from Conservative education spokesman Jamie Greene, Swinney said he expects there to be localised “clusters” of cases of Covid-19 when schools return.

But he said the Scottish Government will handle such outbreaks similarly to how it is currently dealing with the Sitel call centre cases in Lanarkshire, using Scotland’s ‘test and protect’ scheme to track and trace infections.

Labour education spokesman Iain Gray asked the education secretary how ready Scotland really is for the return of full-time schooling, and if face coverings should be worn in schools.

Swinney said any pupil who wishes to wear a face covering should be able to do so, but it should not be mandated.

He also said he is “very keen” to ensure trainee teachers can be used as schools resume, adding that councils have been undertaking risk assessments for a “considerable time”.

Asked by Green MSP Ross Greer why routine testing is not currently planned for school staff, Swinney said he is “very sympathetic” to the point but has taken “extensive advice” from Public Health Scotland.

He added there will be surveillance testing done within schools, and he will lay out more details next week.

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