SCHOOLS across parts of Scotland may have to close again under new proposals being considered for a new alert system of local coronavirus lockdowns.
Pupils in areas of the country which are required to comply with the very highest level of restrictions could have to return to remote learning for periods while the number of Covid cases in their areas subside.
Schools most likely to be hit under the new local lockdown rules are those within the five central belt health board areas currently under the toughest restrictions – Glasgow, Edinburgh, Lanarkshire, Ayrshire and Forth Valley.
The new tiered local alert system could see pupils in virus hotspots areas following lessons remotely from home, while their peers in parts of the country with lower infection levels attend classes as usual.
The First Minister has said she “desperately wants schools to stay open” but last week refused to rule out local moves towards remote learning if existing measures such as the closure of pubs in the central belt do not sufficiently reduce virus levels.
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Details of the new Scottish tiered system of local lockdowns will be published this week and debated and voted on by MSPs after Holyrood returns from recess on October 26.
Sources have told the Sunday National members of the Scottish Government’s education recovery group have been asking what virus conditions would trigger a return to remote learning for some schools.
“There has been a fair bit of talk that schools might have to move to this and there are questions over what it would entail,” the insider told us.
“I don’t think it’s imminent as generally speaking the virus levels for schools are lower than in the general community.
“But the most effective way of getting a local lockdown is to close schools as parents then have to look after their kids and stay at home.
“It might be they have to close schools as part of a broader approach. They wouldn’t be closed in isolation from other measures and I think if this were to happen we would need to be in a poorer position [regarding the virus spread] than we are at the moment.”
The source went on: “Closing schools would be the clearest indication the government would make in a very serious situation and a local lockdown was required.”
Boris Johnson brought in a three-tiered approach to restrictions for England last week though the highest level did not include school closures.
However, the First Minister has indicated she intends to go further with the new Scottish system of tiered local restrictions.
She cited concerns by the UK’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty that the system of alerts south of the Border was not sufficient.
Asked by Labour MSP Monica Lennon whether there were plans to extend school holidays in the worst-hit areas, including South Lanarkshire, the First Minister said that “we cannot rule anything out in the face of what we are dealing with”.
The Stormont administration last week announced all schools in Northern Ireland would close for two weeks from tomorrow including the half-term holiday.
Older pupils in Lombardy, Italy were told last week to follow lessons remotely from home as Covid cases increased in the region again.
Virus levels have surged in Northern Ireland in recent weeks. Data published yesterday by the Department for Health showed the rate of positive tests in Northern Ireland over the past week was 356 cases per 100,000 of population. Scotland’s rate for the same period is 125.3 per 100,000.
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the teachers’ trade union the EIS, said schools and local authorities should be given full notice of any decision to return to remote learning in any areas.
“Schools should be given notice rather than finding out just a couple of days before it happens,” he said.
“It would be a big switch from full attendance to remote teaching and we should be planning for it rather than reacting to any announcement.”
Flanagan added he wanted to know what measures were in place to prevent pupils from families without good computer and internet access at home from being disadvantaged.
Professor Lindsay Paterson, of Edinburgh University, raised concern pupils in areas affected would be at a disadvantage to those where schools remained open.
He said the closures of schools and the return of remote learning or a blended approach with children going to school part-time would disadvantage pupils.
He said: “Either of these two options leave pupils at a disadvantage. They would lose significant opportunities for learning. This loss would be greater for pupils living in poverty than for affluent pupils. So the attainment gap would widen.”
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A Scottish Government spokeswoman said schools and councils were being encouraged to have plans in place.
She said: “Our top priority is to keep schools safe and open – and the measures we are putting in place in wider society will help achieve that.
“School reopening guidance makes clear contingency plans should be in place in the event of local outbreaks, including the possibility of using remote learning and online resources.
“Schools and councils have been encouraged to put in place their own arrangements for remote learning if this becomes unavoidable. Education Scotland has worked with local authority partners to develop a shared national offer for schools to draw on, this includes access to live, recorded and supported learning resources.
“We know access to technology is, and will remain, a fundamental aspect of education in Scotland. We are investing £25 million to address digital exclusion in schools. Funding allocations for digital devices and connectivity solutions have now been made to all councils, who are responsible for making arrangements to secure and distribute equipment to address local needs.
“In total, the programme is expected to deliver around 70,000 devices and 18,000 connectivity solutions for disadvantaged children and young people across Scotland.”
— to www.thenational.scot