Scottish schools look set to take a big step closer to normality, with draft guidance indicating a raft of Covid restrictions are to be removed following the October holidays.
The guidance – a copy of which has been seen by The Herald – states “baseline” mitigations will apply in buildings after pupils return. It means face coverings will not be a requirement in classrooms for secondary learners, although they may wear them if or when they wish to.
In-person, multi-class and multi-year group parents’ evenings are also to be allowed, along with assemblies and other gatherings of pupils and staff. Schools will be able to remove one-way systems, while staggered times for lunch and breaks, as well as for picking up and dropping off children, will no longer be required.
Physical distancing among learners will not be needed. However, staff will be asked to continue maintaining a distance of at least one metre from other adults.
Local authorities and schools will implement revised guidance “as soon as practicable” from the start of the new term.
It comes after the Coronavirus Advisory Sub-Group on Education and Children’s Issues said that, given decreasing case rates across all ages, current evidence on the state of the pandemic, and the efficacy of the national vaccination programme, it would be appropriate “at this time” to move to baseline mitigations in schools.
Elaborating on the position, the draft guidance states: “The R rate is currently below 1, more than 90 per cent of the adult population is now fully vaccinated and increasing numbers of young people are receiving a first dose of the vaccine and for priority groups a second vaccine dose.”
Some baseline Covid measures will apply, including the need for a person to self-isolate if they experience symptoms or test positive, or as a result of travel or being identified as a household contact. Among the others set to stay are: use of face coverings in certain parts of a school building (communal areas, for example); robust processes for hand hygiene and surface cleaning; an ongoing focus on ventilation and deployment of CO2 monitors; twice-weekly LFD testing for secondary age children and young people, and for school staff.
The draft guidance, which The Herald understands was issued at the end of last week and is subject to change, states: “The baseline mitigations for schools are designed to bring a greater sense of normality to schools, while also continuing to provide essential reassurance to children, young people and staff that schools are a safe environment.
“To ensure both consistency and proportionality of approach, the baseline mitigations are also aligned with equivalent requirements that are in place in wider society.”
However, it adds: “This guidance is not an instruction for schools to return to previous practice that pre-dates the pandemic. Instead, it enables the removal of some further mitigations after the October break in a way that is intended to support outcomes for children and young people in a proportionate and responsible manner.”
Union figures have expressed concern. A spokesman for the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA) said: “All existing mitigations must be kept in place as teachers do not have the option to remove themselves from a classroom if they feel unsafe.
“Teaching in a classroom with up to 30 pupils where only a small proportion of the pupils are vaccinated for up to an hour or more is still a risk that could be avoided. We need a national message without any relaxations in any area as it will only cause confusion.
“The last thing schools need is confusion with mitigations and further disruption to schooling that will impact on national qualifications in 2022.”
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However, the Scottish Conservatives welcomed news of the draft changes.
Oliver Mundell, the party’s Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Education, said: “The removal of masks in classrooms would be a crucial step in a long-awaited return to normal learning for pupils and teaching staff.
“Key stakeholders, like School Leaders Scotland will be reassured that the SNP Government finally appear to have realised that wearing a mask in classrooms is disruptive to pupil’s learning, as well as being out of kilter with restrictions in other areas.
“These concerns have been repeatedly raised by the Scottish Conservatives since July.”
He added: “The proposed changes to mask wearing, and the return of parent evenings are a welcome move. The SNP must now outline a route map for the removal of the remaining mitigations in our schools, so our young people can return to normal learning as soon as possible.”