Craig Carson, Labour’s candidate for Holyrood in Glasgow Cathcart, says to ensure our children’s safety and mental health we must think again about a phased return to school when the new term starts next month.
The Deputy First Minister John Swinney’s announcement on 23rd June that all pupils would return full time to education in August was a shock to many teachers and parents. In the preceding weeks, local authorities and school staff had been making meticulous plans to get pupils back safely, ensuring social distancing, removing furniture, amending timetables and planning for cohorts of pupils and part-time attendance. It took one speech for all those plans to be thrown out the window and, to make matters worse, many schools were closing for the summer holidays within a day or two. A perfect example of how not to announce a complete change in government policy.
I want pupils back full time. There is no teacher, parent or school leader in the country who does not want pupils back full time. But for months we have seen the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon stand at a podium and talk about Scotland’s cautious approach to the coronavirus. Many questions have been answered with phrases like “my first priority is people’s safety not politics” or “no one should be politicking about coronavirus”.
There have also been not-so-subtle hints about the approach in England suggesting they are going too fast and even putting people at risk. Yet, in the space of a few hours, we went from this cautious, socially distanced approach, to suddenly having nearly all 700,000 pupils returning at once.
In my opinion the best way to get our young people back full time is to follow that cautious approach we have been navigating for months. As I stated previously, schools have drawn up very detailed plans for a safe phased return, carried out risk assessments, informed parents and school staff were working towards implementing a blended learning model. I would argue we should be returning in August using the blended learning model for a limited period (up to the September weekend or October holiday) to ensure there is no resurgence in the virus.
That would give us time to assess how the virus was operating after schools had returned and deal with any potential local outbreaks. Not only would such an approach look after the physical health of pupils, staff, parents and the wider community, it would also allow for staff to support pupils with their mental health and wellbeing. Time for Inclusive Education (TIE) recently published a survey which showed our young people have seen or experienced an increase in online bullying, racism and homophobia.
We cannot underestimate how tough this has been for our children and young people. Constant talk of illness, risk and threat will have lasting implications if we do not take time to talk to them and reassure them. We should not forget that while learning has continued at home, our young people have not been in a school setting for months with all the social interactions that brings. I can tell you first-hand that it is much easier to have meaningful engagement and discussion with a small class of ten than a full class of thirty!
We can also look to countries like Denmark and Germany who had a phased return of pupils and have not seen the virus run out of control. In Scottish education we quite rightly look elsewhere to improve our schools, why suddenly ignore that attitude when it comes to coronavirus? I fully appreciate a phased return has implications for employers and childcare. I have thought at length about those concerns but I can’t escape the fundamental fact that our children’s safety comes first. The key to any return to school being successful will require additional investment from the Scottish Government. Surely our children and young people are worth it?