‘Uncertainty’ over high school pupils’ return after Easter

John Swinney said there is a 'certain amount of uncertainty' about whether secondary pupils will be able to return full-time.

‘Uncertainty’ over high school pupils’ return after Easter Getty Images

There is still a “certain amount of uncertainty” about whether all secondary pupils will be able to return to school full-time after Easter, the education secretary has told MSPs.

John Swinney said the Scottish Government’s “central planning assumption” was that all students would be back in school full-time after the holiday period.

But he said for secondary schools to have all students back in, this would need the relaxation of rules in place which currently enforce two-metre social distancing in classrooms.

The Scottish Government closed schools to most pupils for a second time at the start of this year, as part of efforts to halt increasing numbers of coronavirus cases.

All children are now back in primary schools, but secondary students have so far only been able to spend a limited amount of time in the classroom.

Swinney told MSPs on Holyrood’s Education Committee that “when it comes to the secondary sector, we are proceeding with a certain amount of uncertainty”.

He had been pressed on the issue by Conservative MSP Jamie Greene, who told the education secretary: “I think a lot of parents are under the assumption that their children will be going back to school full-time after Easter, come what may.”

Swinney said he wanted decisions on the full-time return of secondary school pupils to be made “at the earliest possible opportunity to give confirmation and certainty to families and to schools”.

But he said: “I hope the committee will understand I have to inject a certain amount of caution about being able to definitely say what will be the position, because I have to monitor the information and the data that prevails over the next two to three weeks.”

The Scottish Government will look to give schools and parents the “earliest possible clarification and confirmation of the arrangements that we possibly can do”.

He stressed the the committee: “Our central planning assumption of a return to full-time, in-school education after the Easter holidays.”

A specially established group, which advises the Scottish Government, will consider such matters when it meets on April 5, Swinney added.

With guidelines on physical distancing requiring to be relaxed for all secondary pupils to return full-time, he said the Scottish Government would monitor coronavirus data to “determine if that is a safe assumption for us to operate on when it comes to the moment of return to school”.

In most local authority areas the Easter holidays are not due to end until April 19, though in a few council areas children are due to go back earlier on April 12.

As a result, Swinney said: “There is a bit of time to elapse before we can be definitive, and as we know with the virus it can accelerate in its spread. We hope that won’t be the case.

“But fundamentally the assumption about a full-time return to face-to-face schooling in the secondary sector will be predicated on a relaxation of that two-metre physical distancing rule in the school estate in a classroom setting.”

Swinney said it was likely that adults in schools would still have to stay at least two metres away for each other, and from pupils, and that a “whole variety of other mitigation measures” would also be in place to prevent virus spread.

Swinney said: “My fundamental plan is to get young people back into face-to-face learning at the earliest possible opportunity.

“I expect that to be after the Easter holidays and to sustain that thereafter.”

It has also been revealed that Coronavirus testing on staff and students without symptoms have confirmed just one in 1,000 as having the virus.

The Education Secretary said since the asymptomatic testing regime in schools began five weeks ago “0.1% of cases have been positive after confirmatory PCR testing”.

While the checks, on school staff and senior students are carried out using lateral flow testing, any positive results are then confirmed with a PCR test.

Swinney revealed the results as he hailed the “quite extraordinary” take-up of  the voluntary testing  regime since classes have returned.

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