Uniform policies should be relaxed in schools to allow pupils to stay warm if classroom windows and doors need to be opened for ventilation, Scotland’s education secretary has said.
Shirley-Anne Somerville also said the discovery of a new strain of coronavirus in Scotland vindicated the “unpopular” decision to make pupils continue to wear face coverings in school, warning that a “really, really cautious approach” was required.
Speaking on a panel alongside the general secretary of the EIS teaching union, Larry Flanagan, the education secretary suggested opening windows and doors to help with the circulation of air
Poor air circulation has been identified as a risk factor that increases the change of the airborne Covid-19 virus spreading.
In response, the Scottish Government pledged a £10m fund for schools to assess and possibly improve ventilation in classrooms and said it was “absolutely keeping the evidence under review” about how to reduce the risk to pupils, teachers and school staff.
Reflecting on the review, Somerville said it found “very little remedial work that needed to be undertaken” but stressed that opening windows and doors would continue to be required despite the winter weather.
“Yes, natural ventilation – keeping some windows open at some point – might be necessary,” Somerville said.
“We’re also encouraging schools to be a little bit more flexible, for example about uniform policy if there’s a necessity for young people to be wearing something that doesn’t strictly adhere to a uniform code rather than forcing the families to go out and buy an additional item.”
But Mr Flanagan said there had been “bonkers” cases where schools told teachers to keep windows closed because of concerns about the loss of heat and heating costs.
He said: “The simplest method of ventilation is opening the windows. And I know that sounds ridiculously straightforward, but that actually is an effective mechanism.
“But in colder periods, that has to be linked to schools and classrooms being heated to a higher temperature or having a burst of heat after the interval when the window has been opened to allow a full air change.”
Asked about the new strain of coronavirus, Somerville said: “We need to just be extra cautious about how we are all dealing with this inside and outside education to make sure that we’re following all the mitigations to protect ourselves and each other.
“We will absolutely be having the discussions – which we have done right through the pandemic – with teachers, parents and with young people to look at the evidence as it comes in and see what changes, if any, that we need to make.
“I know we have taken unpopular decisions as a government in education, from some people not from all, around keeping face coverings in schools and around not allowing parents into schools for Christmas nativities and whatnot.
“But I think once again this just demonstrates we cannot tell what’s going to be happening over the winter months and we need to maintain a really, really cautious approach to all of this.”