Highland Council bosses yesterday outlined their programme to tackle the phased return of the region’s children to school in August – but a call is gaining traction among parents for schools to acknowledge the low risks and reopen fully.
Education boss Paul Senior has put in place 11 sub-groups to work on the complex logistics involved in complying with Scottish Government guidance on social distancing.
He has also detailed his aspirations for a 50-50 split for pupils between school and home learning.
Mr Senior, who is interim executive chief officer for education and learning said: “Wellbeing and safety is a top priority for all our children, staff and communities.
“We will continue to work with our key partners, stakeholders and providers to ensure our educational settings are safe and positioned to provide the best possible learning and teaching experiences for our children and young people.”
But Highland Parent Council Partnership (HPCP) acting chairman Mark Gunn said many parents would welcome either full or at least maximised reopening in August.
Mr Gunn said the parents expressed this view to deputy first minister John Swinney in an online discussion earlier this week.
He said: “Given the low, or no, incidence of Covid in many parts of the Highlands, and children as a low risk group, is there really much risk in re-opening schools fully?
“Parents and pupils who have genuine concerns about it should have an option to be more cautious and still be educated/supported.
“We want our children properly educated and the deficit arising from March to June recovered as quickly as possible.”
Mr Gunn, a retired RAF officer with a background in contingency planning, said parents were not prepared or trained to be able to cope with longer term home learning.
“Children could lose an entire year of schooling,” he said.
“Part-time return will create problems for working parents, some of whom have children at two or three different schools.
“Lockdown is having a real impact on their finances and mental health.
“We must not let the ‘Covid cohort’ have their life chances permanently damaged. Every day away from school from August makes that more likely to happen.”
Education committee chairman John Finlayson said he was aware Highland parents have been contacting the Scottish Government about a full return.
Councillor Finlayson said: “Like every local authority, we are operating under national guidance and sticking to two-metre social distancing.
“You can have local variations in terms of the amount of time young people are in school because of the different environment and circumstances and we will be in the position in some small schools to return the pupils 100%.
“If we had that potential for real variation, as a council we would embrace it.”
Mr Finlayson flagged up one of the biggest headaches ahead – the need for schools to prepare for a possible Scottish Government announcement of a relaxing of the two-metre rule to one-metre.
In many schools this would mean the difference between one third of the school returning, and one half.
He said: “The First Minister is expected to review the guidance at the beginning of July.
“If that’s the case, that would be the day before the schools go on holiday.
“To ask us all to scenario plan around two-metres and then tell us the day before the school closes that they are changing the rules would not be helpful.”
Mr Finlayson said parents’ agendas had switched in the past few days from health to education.
“While previously every parent was focused on the health agenda, now some of the worries are less around the spread of Covid and more around the education of their children,” he said,
“I think a lot of parents are of the opinion we need to maybe be not quite as cautious as the Scottish Government is being.
“Individual authority flexibility should be something that’s considered, but at the moment we are complying with the Scottish Government guidance.”
The First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said yesterday: “On the day we published the route map, we also published the education recovery group’s report.
“That plan was agreed not only with Government but with local government, teaching unions and parents organisations.
“The plan that was published then is being operationalised by the work that councils are doing.
“We are applying scrutiny to that and, as I said yesterday, we are also working on what conditions and protections are required to get children back to school not only full time but as normal, so that they are not only getting a full-time education but are able to interact with each other as young people want to.
“That requires continued suppression of the virus. Therefore, we have to take the actions that we are taking now and go with the considered plan so that we drive the levels of the virus down, and then we can consider different ways of getting schools back.
“I will not compromise the safety of children. We will act in a way that keeps them safe and gets them back to school as quickly as possible.”