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Scottish schools end first week of classes after five months of Covid-19 lockdown

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO - AUGUST 17: A general view shows desks inside a classroom arranged according to social distancing guidelines as students begin classes amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on the first day of the fall 2020 semester at the University of New Mexico on August 17, 2020 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Sam Wasson/Getty Images/AFP

The successful ending of the first week of classes in Scottish schools after five months of COVID-19 lockdown, bears many important lessons for the rest of the UK.

1. Don’t expect things to run perfectly from the first day

Throughout Scotland parents have brought to light a variety of difficulties including, but not limited to, bubbles preventing friends from mixing, canteens not serving hot food to children who may rely on schools to provide their main meal and changed access to toilets. Interpretations of government guidelines on issues such as bringing school bags to class have also varied, not just between councils but between local schools.

Education officials accept teething problems are inevitable, and Eileen Prior, the executive director of Connect, Scotland’s national parents’ organisation, said communication was key: “We know schools are working really hard, and it does come down to how individual heads are involving parents in discussions, both about the practicalities of return and also what the process will be if there is a case of coronavirus in the school.”

When a pupil tested positive this week, resulting in an entire primary class being asked to isolate, staff members spent the following afternoon delivering iPads so that teaching could continue remotely.

2. Being all together again is a culture shock for children

Young people have commonly pointed to the dissonance of suddenly being surrounded on all sides by their peers after having gone through months of isolation and lockdown. “It does feel strange having so many people all together indoors,” said Annie McNamee, 17, who has just returned to her final year at high school in East Renfrewshire.

Official guidance stipulates that although primary school children do not have to distance, secondary pupils should do so where possible, but photographs of packed corridors and lunch halls suggests this has not been practical in many cases.

 “This is a large school and it would be impossible for us all to socially distance,” said McNamee, adding that having different rules for young people in and out of school “definitely undermines it”. “I wear a mask on public transport or in shops and only eight people can come round to my house, but in school we’re all crowded together. I don’t think people can take it seriously.”

3. Teachers feel vulnerable too

Many teachers have expressed increasing frustration at the inconsistent advice given and the sense that their safety fears have been ignored, with insufficient ventilation or windows in classrooms not opening sufficiently to allow good airflow.

Larry Flanagan, the head of Scotland’s largest teaching union, the EIS, wrote to Nicola Sturgeon this week calling for stronger reassurance, in particular on face coverings, which staff and older pupils are not currently required to wear.

Flanagan said his members were as keen as parents to reopen, but he identified high levels of anxiety because the picture of community transmission was changing daily.

4. Consider if it is necessary to make school infections public

“The naming of schools where infections have been found is definitely building anxiety and feels counterproductive as often the infection actually originates elsewhere,” said Prior. Every instance so far has been a case of community rather than in-school transfer, as health authorities have repeatedly emphasised.

At her daily briefing on Wednesday, Sturgeon said: “The reason we’re giving this level of detail is to give a sense of how seriously [this is] being taken.”

5. Don’t scapegoat teenagers

Scotland’s children’s commissioner, Bruce Adamson, said “some politicians’ statements seemed to be apportioning blame or suggesting that young people were putting others at risk” after growing concerns about the infection risk posed by young people attending house parties. “Young people have said they feel the focus on house parties is unfair when it’s often adults who are meeting up in that way.”

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