Covid in Scotland: February school return 'tall order' warns Swinney

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Scotland's education secretary has warned it will be a "tall order" for schools to return on 1 February.

But John Swinney said it was "premature" to give a definitive view ahead of a formal decision next week.

Schools are currently closed to the majority of pupils because of concerns about the new strain of Covid, with remote learning being used instead.

Mr Swinney hinted the current arrangements could be extended given the continued prevalence of the virus.

Asked on the BBC's Good Morning Scotland programme whether he thought schools would fully reopen on 1 February, he said: "I think that's a tall order to be honest."

He added: "The government will look at these questions at the Cabinet on Tuesday and the first minister will give an update to parliament, but the virus is still at a very high level in general within society and we took the view that we had to have the level of community transmission suppressed to enable us to protect the NHS."

Mr Swinney, who is also the deputy first minister, said it would be premature for him to give a decision at this stage, but that the government's overriding priority was "keeping everyone in our society safe."

The Scottish government is expected to make an announcement in the Scottish Parliament about when schools will reopen on Tuesday.

The majority of Scottish school pupils are learning from home, with a combination of set tasks and online sessions with teachers.

Some vulnerable pupils and children of key workers are able to attend school where they are supervised by teaching staff.

'Good start'

Mr Swinney said the issue was due to a Europe-wide Microsoft fault that had now been fixed.

He said: "The services have been up and running well since Tuesday and we've seen a very significant increase in the usage of Microsoft Teams, which I think illustrates that the teaching profession has spent a great deal more time delivering live learning to young people.

"I accept remote learning is a real challenge, particularly for parents who are working as well, but generally it's got off to a very good start."

At the end of every day I question if I have done enough'

During the first lockdown Donna Bruce, from Rutherglen in South Lanarkshire, juggled a full-time job and working from home while looking after her two children, Kai, 10, and eight-year-old Quinn.

She didn't have enough devices for all three of them, and she had to occupy the children for seven hours a day while working at the same time.

Her early Zoom meetings enjoyed guest appearances from half-naked children climbing kitchen cupboards to find snacks.

image copyrightDonna Bruce
image captionQuinn and Kai got off to a good start after technical issues across the UK with Microsoft

This time round, she feels schools and teachers were better prepared.

"Teachers had made videos talking to the children and reassuring them," she said.

"I feel there is less pressure this time on parents and children, but children still need supervised and their time still needs occupied to allow parents to work and that's when the issues come in."

'Tough year' for pupils

Mr Swinney acknowledged that he was worried about the impact that the disruption caused by Covid will have on attainment levels in what he described as a "terribly tough year" for pupils.

He said: "I can't sit here and say remote learning in the current environment, and the school year we're going through, is the ideal school year.

"It is far from ideal and I worry about the impact on the wellbeing of young people."

Scottish Conservatives education spokesman, Jamie Greene MSP, said the Scottish government needed "to reassure parents that they have a clear plan on how and when pupils can get back into classrooms".

He added: "The closure of schools has placed a huge burden on both parents and teachers, and they deserve clarity as soon as possible.

"More on-site and regular Covid testing was promised but never materialised, and this will be essential to getting kids behind their desks again."

One parents' group has also raised concerns about "equal and fair access to home learning" and it has called on the Scottish government to set minimum standards.

Resources to support learners, teachers and parents during lockdown.

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