Nicola Sturgeon confirms Scottish schools to partially return from Monday
Scotland’s youngest pupils will return to school full-time from Monday, Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed.
Pupils returning to school will be the first part of any route out of lockdown, the First Minister said, adding that a new route map for coming out of lockdown will be published next week.
Ms Sturgeon indicated non-essential retail and an increase to the allowed amount of family contact could be the first measures to be relaxed.
But she suggested the trade-off could be “continued travel restrictions”, warning it was likely to rule out Easter holidays either abroad or in Scotland, though summer staycations might be possible.
Ms Sturgeon said it was difficult to overstate the importance of being “careful, cautious and gradual” in lifting restrictions.
But she promised discussions with opposition parties, business organisations, trade unions, third-sector bodies and others before the strategic framework to guide Scotland out of lockdown was released, probably next Tuesday.
She told MSPs: “It will aim to set out how we will use and balance all the tools at our disposal – restrictions and advice, vaccination, test and protect, and travel restrictions – to restore on a phased basis greater normality to our everyday lives.
"It will set out, as far as possible, the conditions we think need to be met in terms of the data for us to start lifting restrictions and it will detail the broad order of priority for reopening, including a return to a geographic levels approach might look like in due course.”
A further return of school pupils is also set to take place on March 15 at the earliest.
However, the announcement on Tuesday will see pupils in P1 to P3 return to full time school from Monday, with those requiring in early learning or childcare also allowed to reopen from Monday.
Senior students who require access to schools to undertake practical work for their national qualifications will also be allowed to return on a partial basis.
This would see around five to 8 per cent of a secondary school’s roll on the premises at any one time.
Teachers, school workers and senior pupils will also have the ability to request up to two Covid-19 tests a week as part of a wider testing rollout to ensure schools are safe for teachers and pupils.
The First Minister announced an initial delay to the return of pupils in December, but confirmed the full closure of schools for all pupils bar those who are children of key workers on January 4.
In a statement to Holyrood, Ms Sturgeon said: “In terms of the order in which we do exit lockdown, the Government has always made clear that education should be the top priority.
“I announced two weeks ago our preliminary decision that pre-school children, pupils in primaries one, two and three, and a limited number of senior phase students who need access to school for essential practical work, would return from Monday, February 22.
“I also said that, from the same date, we hope to enable a limited increase in the provision for vulnerable children, specifically those with the most significant additional support needs – where schools believe that this is essential.
“I am pleased to confirm today that, in keeping with the advice of our expert group, this first phase of the re-opening of schools will go ahead as planned on Monday.”
The First Minister said the next stage of school reopening would be outlined in a fortnight, but that it would be unlikely any more pupils will be in school before March 15.
Ms Sturgeon told Holyrood: “We will need to monitor the impact of this change very carefully before taking any further decisions.
“However, I hope we will be able to set out the second phase of school re-opening in two weeks’ time.
“I want to be clear, though, in order to give parents as much clarity as possible at this time that the need to properly assess the impact of this limited re-opening means we think it unlikely, at this stage, that there will be any further return to school before March 15.”
Ms Sturgeon also said no lockdown restrictions other than the change to the rules around schools would be lifted from this week.
The Scottish Government has come under pressure from teaching unions to ensure the return of pupils is safe and to introduce a ‘blended learning’ approach for the youngest pupils where only part of the week is spent in school.
Welcoming the availability of testing and the return to schools, Larry Flanagan, the general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, warned teachers would still be “nervous” to return to work due to the high prevalence of Covid-19.
He said: “Everyone is supportive of face-to-face teaching returning as soon as possible – that should not override safety concerns, however, and teachers will be understandably nervous around today’s announcement.
"Whilst Scottish Government timelines can appear to be self-fulfilling prophecies, there will need to be a meticulous analysis of this first phase and its impact, before any further return is progressed.”
Responding to the partial reopening of schools, opposition parties called for the extension of the vaccine to school teachers and other key workers in a bid to get back to normal quickly.
The Scottish Conservative’s Holyrood leader Ruth Davidson welcomed the announcement, but said more needed to be done to help pupils “catch-up”.
She said: “The Scottish Conservatives have called for a schools catch-up plan to be published as soon as possible, built around a national tutoring service to stop the attainment gap growing, and we hope the SNP will take that proposal on board in the next phase of the Budget.
“But to get us even closer to normality, we need to get all key workers vaccinated as early as we can, while respecting the JCVI recommendations.
“We asked the First Minister for answers on behalf of key workers, including teachers, who want to know when they will get the vaccine for both their own health and their close contacts. The response was short on detail and didn’t clear anything up. We need answers to be outlined soon for the key workers keeping our schools and public services running safely.”
Further gradual relaxation of restrictions will be outlined when the new road map out of lockdown is published next week, Ms Sturgeon said, with non-essential retail potentially the first part of the economy to reopen.
Reacting, the Federation of Small Businesses' Scotland policy chair Andrew McRae said dates were needed to help businesses stay afloat.
He said: “We welcome the news that ministers will detail the conditions that need to be met before a wider reopening, but we’d urge them to provide dates, however provisional.
"A draft timeline would allow many debt-laden operators to put in place measures to give them the best chance of surviving. We can’t see local businesses collapse during the final mile of this marathon just because they don’t know the finish line is around the corner.”
Ms Sturgeon had earlier stressed the government wanted phased return to as much normality as possible as quickly as possible.
She said: “We must be driven much more by data than by dates. I know this is difficult given how desperate all of us are to get back to something closer to normality, but if e open up too quickly to meet arbitrary dates we do risk setting our progress back.”
On the possibility of booking holidays, Ms Sturgeon added: "We are very likely to advise against booking Easter holidays either overseas or within Scotland as it is highly unlikely we will have been able to fully open hotels or self-catering accommodation by then.
"However, by the summer while is still highly unlikely overseas holidays will be possible or advisable, staycations might be – but this will depend on the data nearer the time.”