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Highland Council preparing for phased return to 'new normal'

By Alan Hendry

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A locked gate at a Wick primary school. Highland Council is gearing up for schools across the region to return on August 11.
A locked gate at a Wick primary school. Highland Council is gearing up for schools across the region to return on August 11.

Preparations are being made by Highland Council for schools to return in August area following the publication today of the Scottish Government’s route map out of the coronavirus lockdown.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon revealed that stage one of the four-phase plan could come into effect on May 28, although for now the advice remains "stay home, protect the NHS and save lives".

Councillor Alasdair Christie, chairman of the council’s recovery board, said: “Highland Council is assessing and planning for all the implications of the First Minister’s announcement made today about the first-stage relaxation of lockdown, including her statement on teachers and other staff returning during June to prepare for the return to school in August.

“The recovery board has already begun developing our own Highland Council route map which is focusing on how we prepare for a safe return to work, return to school and restarting key services, such as reopening recycling centres at the start of June.

“Today’s announcement will, I am sure, be welcomed by communities here in Highland, who have been adhering to the lockdown measures and ensuring they help protect the NHS and save lives.

“However, we are also acutely aware of the impact the lockdown has had on our economy and on every aspect of people’s lives and mental health.

“We are working hard to map out the best way forward for Highland, so that we can start to get people back to work and school, but to ensure this is done safely and in line with science and the Scottish Government’s guidance.”

He added: “Since the outbreak we have learned a lot of lessons and we’ve seen a tremendous demonstration of agility, innovation and hard work from staff across the organisation. I am delighted to say that as a result of everyone’s hard work and commitment we are now in a position to pave the way forward and start getting back to what will be a new normal for all of us.”

Schools are set to return on August 11, one week earlier than planned for most pupils, while early learning and childcare (ELC) settings will open over the summer.

An agreement reached between councils, professional associations and parent representatives means:

  • Schools will implement physical distancing measures, such as providing seating that is two metres apart and staggering arrival, departure and break times
  • Increased hand-washing or use of hand sanitisers, enhanced cleaning, robust protocols and ongoing risk assessments
  • Class sizes will be significantly reduced as a result of the new way of working, with most pupils spending around half their time in class and half learning at home. Time in school will increase further as soon as it is safe to do so
  • Teachers and other education staff will return in June – subject to appropriate safety assessments being completed – to prepare and plan for the new way of working and welcoming pupils back
  • Existing "hubs" will continue to run to provide vulnerable children and those of key workers with childcare over the summer
  • The school estate will be expanded where necessary and possible to increase the time children can spend with their teachers
  • Innovative use will be made of existing teachers and staff

The Scottish Government is investing £9 million for 25,000 laptops or tablets – with internet access provided – for disadvantaged children as part of the first phase of provision to support their learning outside school. Working with local authorities, a second phase of investment will see further funding to support digital inclusion.

Education Scotland will also deliver new national digital learning resources to support schools’ own arrangements for children and young people.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney said: “In reopening Scotland’s schools, our overriding priority is ensuring the health and wellbeing of our pupils and staff and giving parents the confidence schools are safe.

“Subject to public health guidance, teachers and other school staff will be able to return in June to prepare for a new model of learning from August. Comprehensive health and safety guidance will be in place prior to staff returning to school.

“This is not, however, a return to schooling as we knew it – schools are not returning to normal at this stage.

“To keep our pupils and staff safe we will implement physical distancing, staggered arrival and departure times, staggered break times, increased hand hygiene, enhanced cleaning regimes and a range of other measures

“That means a new model of teaching, learning and support will have to be delivered. Precise details will vary from school to school but, for the vast majority, classes are going to be much smaller to allow physical distancing and, as a result, children are likely to spend about half their time learning at home.

“To maximise time in the classroom, we will work with local authorities to expand the size of their school estate where that is possible by using outside space, libraries, leisure centres, community halls and anywhere else that can safely be made to work.

“And, with classes being split in two or even in three, we will examine whether we can expand the number of teachers by asking those recently retired to return.

“In all of this, we recognise that some pupils will need extra help, particularly those who don’t have the technology at home to learn effectively.

“That’s why we will provide an initial tranche of 25,000 free laptops – bundled with a free internet connection – to pupils who need it. Education Scotland will support digital learning through new national digital learning resources that will bolster schools’ own arrangements for children and young people.

“We don’t know how long schools will have to work this way, just as we don’t know how long coronavirus will be a threat. As long as that is the case, school life will feel quite different to before Covid-19."

He added: “We have a mission to make this work, to educate Scotland’s pupils and, above all, to keep them safe. Working with our teachers, school staff and councils this, plan gives us a way to do that.

“We can safeguard our children’s future and get them learning alongside their classmates again. This plan will do that and get our young people safely back to school.”

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