Purpose and background
This guidance has been issued in response to the First Minister’s statement to Parliament on 2 February 2021 announcing a phased return to in-person learning in schools from 22 February which was confirmed on 16 February. It is intended to provide clarity on arrangements for school education in February/March 2021 and to help schools to plan for the full-time return of children in P1-P3, for the part-time return of some young people in the senior phase and a small increase in existing provision for children and young people with significant additional support needs. Early learning and childcare will also return on 22 February – separate guidance has been prepared on this.
Plans for potential return of children and young people in other year groups will also be kept under regular review – Ministers are clear that further changes should be driven by the data and not by dates.
This guidance, therefore, supplements the existing Coronavirus: reducing risks in schools guidance specifically to support schools and local authorities during February/March 2021. With a small number of exceptions (for example, the need for 2m distancing between young people in secondary school) all aspects of the existing guidance and accompanying mitigations continue to apply while schools are open.
These exceptional arrangements are being put in place in light of the latest developments in the path of the virus, following the emergence of new variants. As set out in the Advice From The Covid-19 Advisory Sub-Group On Education And Children’s Issues published on 3 February 2021, case numbers, levels of community transmission and test positivity rates are still high but are generally decreasing.
There is understandable anxiety among staff about a return to school given these rates of transmission. As part of the process of phased return, every possible step should therefore be taken by local authorities and schools to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children, young people and staff in schools. The mitigations set out in Coronavirus: reducing risks in schools guidance and the additional measures set out in this guidance should be strictly adhered to.
In recognition that progress in suppressing the virus to previous low levels will likely take some more weeks, it has been decided to return to in-school learning in a staged/progressive way. This approach will enable time for planning each step change and for monitoring its impacts and the need for stability and sustainability of approach.
A range of previously published evidence has made clear that schools are low risk environments when the appropriate mitigations and safety measures outlined in the Coronavirus: reducing risks in schools guidance are implemented, and this remains our judgement – there is to date no evidence that in-school transmission is a significant driver of increasing infection levels. There is also evidence about the impacts of loss of access to in-person provision on educational and developmental outcomes and the need to consider the impacts of remote learning and a phased return to in-person learning on children’s rights and wellbeing.
However, the emergence of the new variants of COVID-19 (particularly B.1.1.17) means that fully reopening schools at this time would not be consistent with a safety-first approach for children, young people and school staff. This is due to a combination of:
- overall levels of community transmission. Controlling levels of community transmission plays an important role in ensuring that our schools can stay open and welcoming – this approach is reflected in the Scottish Government’s COVID-19 strategic framework protection levels
- the need to monitor carefully the impact of any reopening before expanding more widely, especially as a result of higher uncertainty regarding the trajectory of the virus as a result of the new variants
- the status of evidence regarding the health impact of the new variants and their impact on transmission amongst children and young people and transmission from children and young people to adults
The effects of these initial steps will be carefully monitored before any further decisions are made about future phases of return and a return to in-school learning for other children and young people. This will include the impact on community transmission and further assessment of the implications of the new variant of the virus.