Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of rushing to release schools from the latest coronavirus lockdown while failing to agree detailed measures with teachers which would keep classrooms safe.

Senior union figures have asked why the First Minister is “running ahead” of her counterparts in England and Northern Ireland after she announced plans to begin the phased re-opening of campuses later this month.

She told MSPs she wants youngsters in P1-3, as well as those in early learning and childcare, to return full-time from February 22.

It is also hoped some S4-6 pupils will be able to go back on a part-time basis so they can complete practical work necessary for national qualification courses.

However, the intention is that no more than around five to eight per cent of a secondary school roll will be physically present at any one time.

The measures will depend on continued progress in suppressing transmission of Covid-19. Decisions are due to be confirmed in a fortnight.

It came as Scotland-wide lockdown arrangements were extended until at least the end of February, with plans also announced for a “managed quarantine requirement” for anyone who arrives here from another country.

Last week, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he wanted to see English schools reopen gradually from March 8.

 

Plans for an earlier reopening in Scotland will be helped by the latest UK data which shows Covid case rates are currently well below those in England and Northern Ireland, and also a little lower than in Wales.

But union bosses told The Herald they were concerned about the apparent speed with which changes could take place north of the Border.

They also expressed concern over the lack of proposals for physical distancing among P1-3s.

Seamus Searson, General Secretary at the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, said: “There’s a rub in that the First Minister said initially that everybody should stay in lockdown until the end of February but it’s ok for teachers to go to work.

“Why can’t youngsters do the necessary practical work in March? Why does it have to be from the 22nd of February?

“I would really question why we’re running ahead of England and Northern Ireland, where ministers have, for example, talked about not bringing pupils back until March 8th at the earliest.

“You’re setting people up for schools to go back from February 22 but, for that, transmission rates will have to come down dramatically.

“I really wish there’d been a conversation with the teaching profession before this statement about what can be achieved and what’s necessary to keep everybody in schools safe.”

Ms Sturgeon’s plan will affect more than 160,000 P1-3 youngsters, with a maximum of around 24,000 secondary pupils expected on campus at any one time.

HeraldScotland: Education Secretary John Swinney.Education Secretary John Swinney.

She has also promised a “significant expansion” of testing in schools and nurseries in the coming weeks.

This would cover both staff and senior secondary pupils.

Larry Flanagan, General Secretary at the EIS, said: “Clearly, any school return remains contingent upon continued progress on community suppression of the virus and that is not a given so we need to see infection levels coming down substantially before the return date can be confirmed.”

He continued: “Whilst a phased return is a more cautious approach, we are surprised that the First Minister did not discuss the need for physical distancing amongst P1-P3 pupils, given that she clearly stated the new variant impacts on all age groups, whereas previously younger children seemed to be less directly involved in transmission than adults.

“The EIS believes that a blended learning model, i.e. implementing physical distancing, would be a safer strategy to deploy and we would need to see strong scientific evidence to justify the Government’s approach.

“Frankly, in the absence of such evidence, this model creates unnecessary risk for staff and pupils.”

Dr Patrick Roach, NASUWT General Secretary, said: “A package of measures will be needed to secure the confidence of parents and the workforce and should include mandatory guidance on Covid safe working practices in schools that is backed up with inspection and enforcement measures to ensure compliance.”

He added: “The safety of teachers with underlying health conditions or who are clinically extremely vulnerable must also be assured, and the introduction of rotas should also be introduced to provide for effective social distancing.”

The Scottish Government said two metre physical distancing for adults and pupils would be required in secondary schools in the period immediately after any return.

It added that, where necessary, updated guidance and associated mitigations would be published for all relevant settings that allows for the current circumstances and latest scientific advice.

Education Secretary John Swinney said: “A sense of caution underpins the plans unveiled today, but this is essential as we work to return to full-time teaching in schools.”