JOHN Swinney has announced schools in Scotland will re-open full-time in August if the coronavirus pandemic is sufficiently suppressed.

The Education Secretary, who only 10 days ago said it could take a year to return to normality, told MSPs the move would mean pupils would not need to be socially distanced.

However, he stressed that the Scottish Government’s initial plan for “blended learning” - a mix of class teaching and homeschooling - remained a contingency measure.

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Some councils had offered pupils as little as one day a week of face-to-face teaching, leading to a backlash from parents.

Mr Swinney said the blended learning model had been developed at a "bleak" point in the pandemic in May when 2m distancing between pupils was expected to be necessary.

However the picture now looked "more positive" and if the current trajectory of the disease continued, full-time learning was possible from Augusts, albeit not guaranteed.

There had been a "change in planning assumption", he told Holyrood, but an upturn in the virus could yet change it back to the original blending learning model.

Mr Swinney said: "We want Scotland’s children back in school full time as soon as possible and as soon as it is safe to do so.

"Working through the Education Recovery Group, we built a plan - a plan based on making the very best of the very difficult circumstances that we expected to face.

It was a contingency plan that was and is necessary.  And, for the last month councils and teachers have been working hard to enact that contingency.

"Now, thankfully, the picture looks more positive.

"There has been a sustained downward trend in Covid-19 deaths. Intensive care cases now stand at a fraction of what they were.

"If we stay on this trajectory - which cannot be taken for granted - by August the position will be even better.  

"That means we are now able to update our planning assumptions.

"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 that we should prepare for children to be able to return to school full time in August."

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He added: "I have to be honest with Parliament and admit that when we prepared our plans back in May, I frankly could not have imagined that we would be where we are now.

"It is this more positive outlook that allows the Scottish Government to make  this change of planning assumption for schools."

Mr Swinney also announced an extra £100m funding to help pupils catch up on lost learning.

He said the plan was for school exams to go ahead in 2021, however they could be delayed for a few weeks to give pupils more time to catch up on their subjects.

Scottish Tory leader Jackson Carlaw called it a “colossal U-turn by the SNP”, as well as “great news for pupils and parents”.

Tory education spokesman Jamie Greene, who struggled to be heard in the chamber as SNP MSPs jeered him, accused the Government of a "vacuum of leadership", and said Mr Swinney had been forced into a U-turn by parents' outrage and opposition pressure.

He added later: "This screeching U-turn from the SNP government will be music to the ears of parents right across the country who were outraged by the lack of ambition shown to date.  

“The sad truth is that events of recent weeks have exposed a leadership vacuum in how these plans were put together and communicated.

“The fact that the SNP government were the last people to realise that their part time plans were simply no good, sums up their ignorance of the public mood on this issue.

“Up until now local authorities were working towards part time schooling plans as commanded by Mr Swinney, the question remains how thrilled Cosla will be with this dramatic 180 about turn.

“Warm words must now be followed by real actions, today’s statement leaves councils with more questions than answers.

“The SNP must now deliver on its new found promise of full time schooling by August, through whichever means necessary, if it stands any chance of rebuilding the trust of parents.”

Labour MSP Iain Gray called it the "mother and father of ministerial climbdowns".

He said: "We asked for a route map back to schools – it turns out, we’d been on a mystery tour.

“If we can deliver this safely, it is very welcome news. But what a fine mess this is.

“There are still more questions than answers.  

“What protective measures, PPE, deep cleaning, and testing will be required to keep teachers and staff safe?”

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “Parents will be relieved by this change of heart as it means that children will get the education they deserve and we can start to catch up on the lost months during which the inequality gap has grown.

“It stretches credibility for the Deputy First Minister to claim the decline of the virus was a surprise which led to this sudden change by the government. 

“The next challenge for the government is to fix the childcare availability for parents returning to work over the summer when. Normal childcare arrangements are closed off to them such as families or childminders.  

"It is an urgent matter that needs fixed now.”

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Scottish Greens Education Spokesperson Ross Greer MSP 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.”

Joe Cullinane, the Labour leader of North Ayrshire Council, said the blended learning model had been suddenly downgraded by ministers after weeks of preparation by councils

After Mr Swinney’s statement, he tweeted: “The Scot Govt have had education teams in councils devising 'blended learning' plans for weeks, including teachers working on curriculum etc. Those plans have been communicated with parents and now, days before the summer holidays, we are to prepare for a full-time return

“None of us wanted 'blended learning' to be in place a day longer than necessary and if it is safe to fully reopen then that's great. But lets not pretend that 'blended learning' was always a contingency plan, until half an hour ago it was the plan.”

The Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland welcomed the announcement and said it would ease pressure on workers.

FSB director of devolved nations Colin Borland said: “The Education Secretary has made the right call by ensuring that schools will offer full-time education after the summer holidays.  

"Employers and working parents will breathe a sigh of relief, given the significant economic consequences and practical difficulties of a part-time school system.

“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.”

EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan said “Clearly, if the suppression of the virus continues to be successful, public health guidance may change and this will impact on schools as well as every other aspect of society.

“It would be a grave mistake, however, to believe that the virus has gone away and therefore in the event of schools reopening more fully than currently planned, appropriate mitigations must be in place to protect staff and pupils and prevent flare-ups either in terms of localised resurgence in infection or even a full second wave.

“In terms of schools, this means looking at measures already being used elsewhere such as mandatory face coverings, protective perspex shields, proactive testing of teachers and an appropriate level of physical distancing between pupils and most certainly between pupils and staff, alongside continued protections for vulnerable groups. The EIS would expect these issues to be agreed within CERG before schools could reopen more fully.

“A great deal of work at school level has already gone into planning for a blended learning model from August 11th, so any change to that will require time to adjust plans and conduct revised risk assessments. Again, this will need to be subject to discussion and agreement.

“Everyone wishes to see schools operate as normal, but this should be done in a way which is demonstrably safe for students and staff, which doesn’t undermine public health messages, and which is done with the interest of school communities being first and foremost and not political expediency.”

Councillor Stephen McCabe, Children and Young People spokesperson with the council umbrella group Cosla, said: “Since the outbreak of the pandemic local authorities and their staff have reacted with speed and commitment to ensuring that children and young people get the support they need.

"From establishing critical childcare and hub provision for vulnerable children and the children of key workers to providing 170,000 free school meals school staff have made heroic efforts in very challenging circumstances.

“The safety of children, young people and staff has been the primary consideration as councils have prepared their local plans.

"These plans have been based on joint nationally agreed guidance and on preparing for a return to face to face education based on 2 metre distancing. All councils have developed their plans in line with the guidance and local circumstances. 

"We have always been clear that the blended learning approach is not one we would want to see in place for any longer than necessary.

“The news that the levels of the virus continue to move in the right direction is of course extremely positive.

"The Deputy First Minister’s statement that the planning assumption will now be for a full return in August if it is safe to do so is of course a significant change in direction.

"We will work with the Scottish Government, our Local Government partners, trade unions, parent organisations and children and young people representatives to consider the implications and practicalities of a full time return for pupils in August.

“Whilst there will be a number of considerations safety will remain the number one priority.

“As the term ends this week for the majority of councils I would like to thank all of our school staff for the tireless effort they have put in over the last three months in particular to continue the education and support of children and young people at this very difficult time.”