9. Future options for allowing pupils to return to school
School closures, and options for how, and when, schools should return, were some of the most debated issues across the platform. Discussions centred around:
- When pupils should return to school
- How schools should look when pupils return
- Support for children learning from home
- Early years education
- Impact of school closures on children
- Financial impact of school and nursery closures
When pupils should return to school
Respondents' ideas largely fell into two categories on allowing pupils to return to school. Those who wanted schools to return as soon as possible, and those who wanted an early decision to be taken on schools not returning until after the summer break, or later.
Few felt that schools should return immediately, but many felt that they should be a priority in terms of how lockdown is lifted, both in terms of prioritising children's education and welfare, and in terms of being necessary in order for parents to work. Others were concerned that reopening schools could pose a high risk due to the challenges around maintaining social distancing. They argued that waiting until after the summer holidays could give an opportunity for the current risk to reduce and for schools and teachers to prepare the school environment and online resources. This view was frequently tied in with the request to take the opportunity to review how Scottish education is currently structured.
Some suggested that the school summer holidays should be started earlier than normal to allow pupils to return earlier than normal in August. In this scenario, the earlier return date would allow for pupils in transition years to have a "handover" period before the school year properly starts. There was also a suggestion of cancelling the summer holiday all together to allow pupils to return to their education as soon as feasible.
There was general support for a staggered approach to returning to school, with different groups returning to school at different times. Others were concerned about the practicalities of a phased return and how it could raise transmission levels if some pupils returned sooner than might be safe.
"Allow phased return, kids need school, some more than others. Schools need to be given enough time to plan how this will work for them. Every school will be different depending on layout, location and pupil roll, consideration should be given to this too. Parents also need as much notice as possible to prepare. Younger children should not be penalised because of their inability to social distance. Please consider this also."
Some respondents felt that younger pupils should be prioritised for return to school due to the importance of early years education and to make it easier for parents to work from home. Others were concerned that P7 pupils need to be prepared for transition to secondary school, and suggestions included phasing that until the middle of the new term. Transition from nursery to primary schools was also highlighted as needing careful thought. There were a number of respondents who argued that pupils entering school exam years should be prioritised.
"Could pupils return to school in August and pick up where they left off? i.e. not moving up a class. They could do this until say October break or a suitable timeframe. P1's could be deferred starting school until after October break. It would mean cramming a lot in to a shorter period of time. I am a parent of a P7 and it concerns me that her next day of school could be high school with no preparation or transition period."
There was disagreement and confusion over the level of risk posed to children, both in terms of catching the virus and the severity of symptoms and in terms of their risk of transmitting the virus to others. Some suggested that the schools and nurseries that have been open for key workers' children could be used to evaluate the transmission risk in these settings if they were opened up more broadly.
How schools should look when pupils return
There was some debate around whether children should repeat all or part of the school year - comments on this idea were polarised and there was little consensus reached. The idea seemed more popular among respondents with children due to undergo exams. Parents of those in P7 commonly supported some kind of transition phase between schools restarting and moving to high school. Repeating the year was also seen as a way to restructure and delay the start of primary school, with some feeling that Scottish children start school too early.
Suggestions for managing a safe return to school include:
- staggering the timings for the school day
- regular testing and temperature checks
- better ventilation of school buildings
- implementing hygiene training for pupils
The use of PPE within schools was debated, with some feeling it to be important to protect staff and pupils, and others arguing that it would be difficult to teach in a facemask and difficult for younger children to wear them correctly, and raising concerns that it could be frightening for children.
There was much discussion of alternative educational settings and venues that could be used to allow social distancing. This included a call for more outdoor learning such as "forest schools" or designated outdoor space and toilet facilities for nurseries and schools to use to minimise the number of children in classrooms at a given time. There was also discussion of using community and third-sector premises such as church halls to allow for adequate spacing of desks.
There was a suggestion of restructuring primary school classes to create composite classes based around sibling groups. It was argued that this would be beneficial both for minimising transmission risk and in terms of educational outcomes.
It was suggested that in high schools, teachers should move around classrooms rather than pupils to help with physical distancing.
Respondents highlight that consideration will need to be made for how to support children with additional support needs, who may require more structure, or may need more physical contact from staff.
There was a suggestion that special arrangements should be made for children who are shielding, or whose families are shielding. A suggestion given was that these children could come in on a dedicated day, for example on Mondays after the school has been deep cleaned over the weekend and before other pupils arrive for the rest of the week. They should also be supported with continued home schooling.
Respondents raised concerns about possible staff shortages due to teachers being in the more 'at-risk' or 'shielded' groups, or needing to self-isolate. There was a suggestion of students in the final year of teacher training being supported to help. There was also a suggestion that teachers in more 'at-risk' groups could lead on home learning and those in lower risk groups could return to teaching in schools.
There were some calls to engage with children when taking decisions about how schools should return. Ideas included celebrating the work they have done in lockdown, for example by displaying the rainbow pictures online, asking children to draw what their ideal school would look like, and asking them what they like and dislike about the online teaching they have had.
Support for children learning from home
There was some concerns about the quality of remote teaching and online lessons. Many parents said they do not feel equipped to home educate. People noted that the quality of remote learning provision is variable depending on local authority area, with private schools often faring better. Online tuition and video conferencing were suggested as ways that teachers could continue to teach and develop education materials without physical classrooms.
There were differences in terms of people's expectations of teachers offering virtual classrooms. There is a perception about some teachers not doing enough, while others are concerned that creating a new home learning curriculum is a lot of work and that wellbeing should be the current priority. There was support for the idea of a national distance learning course for children to ensure consistency, and looking to UK and international best practice to support this.
There was support for ensuring better support for pupils using teaching tools like GLOW, Zoom, Moodle and virtual classrooms. There was concern about the effectiveness of these tools for those who need additional support for learning. There was a concern about access to tablets/laptops and good internet access particularly in poorer household, and the potential for this to entrench inequality.
Early years education
There was discussion of the need to consider nursery age pupils as part of the discussion on schools returning. There was concern that if the decision is made to wait until after summer holidays to reopen schools, nurseries may not be considered separately, even if it becomes safe to reopen them sooner than August. It was argued that it is impossible to work from home while looking after nursery age children (harder than school age children), with parents having to work late into the evenings or early in the morning when their child is sleeping. It was argued that reopening nurseries will have a significant impact for parents and the economy. There was also concern about the fact that early years education is known to have a significant impact on future education and life chances.
"Having a nursery age child makes working from home impossible. If the need for social distancing reduces while the older kids are still on summer holidays then that should not prevent nurseries restarting. There is a lot of focus on when schools will go back, but school age kids are easier to cope with while also working from home so nurseries could be proportionately more important for getting the economy running again. Nursery age development is also incredibly important for long term educational and social outcomes."
Many, however, argued that it is impossible to socially distance in a nursery setting. It was suggested that nurseries that are currently open for key workers' children could be studied to assess the risk of reopening nurseries more broadly. There was also the suggestion of supporting outdoor education or "forest schools" as a way of returning nurseries safely.
Impact of school closures on children
Many respondents were concerned about the impact the current restrictions will have on children's future education and life chances, as well as the more immediate effect on children's, young people's, and parent's mental health.
As noted, a number of parents described feeling ill-equipped to support home learning, particularly while also working from home. Parents also highlighted that children have not only been deprived of their schooling, but also with social contact with their friends, and particular concerns were raised about the distress caused by children not being able to see their grandparents.
Many of the respondents who raised these concerns advocated for schools to return as soon as possible. Others suggested that mental health support should be in place for pupils when they return, including training for teachers and school staff on how to spot early warning signs.
Financial impact of schools and nursery closures
The issue of childcare was raised. It was suggested that parents should be given time off from work if they are expected to provide teaching to their children at home and employers would need to be compensated for the hours lost:
"Younger children when not in the classroom need input. At least at the beginning of an exercise. Parents cannot provide this input if they are also working. Employers have a reasonable expectation that employees be productive."
A number of comments were received about the financial impact on families of school closures. This included financial support for those who have to 'home-school' their children and are thus unable to work. A second suggestion was around relaxing school uniform requirements so parents did not have to pay for uniform they were not sure could be used yet.