Implementation of reducing risks guidance and enhanced mitigations (including approach to groupings)
The COVID-19 Advisory Sub-group on Education and Children’s Issues met on 9 February to consider its existing advice on the mitigations required to ensure a safe return to in-person learning for children, young people and staff. It recommended some key areas where its advice should be strengthened, for example the need for 2m distancing between senior learners in school and on school transport. In other areas its existing advice still stands.
There are already a number of mitigations in place to reduce transmission of COVID-19 in schools and ELC settings in Scotland, and these all continue to apply to the new variants. The NERVTAG advice on Mitigations to Reduce Transmission of the New Variant SARS-CoV-2 Virus concluded that a step change in the rigour of application of mitigations is required, given the increased transmission risk associated with the new variant.
Schools and ELC settings should therefore place a high priority on reinforcing the current mitigations designed to reduce the risk for children, young people and staff and as set out in the existing guidance on reducing the risks from COVID-19 in schools and the equivalent guidance on ELC settings. All staff (including student teachers on placements) and learners attending schools on an exceptional basis for in-person learning should continue to implement and strictly observe these mitigations. This includes with regard to face coverings and existing requirements on distancing between secondary learners (and any additional mitigations that may be identified within updated risk assessments; for example, additional mitigations that are appropriate as a result of fewer people being in schools).
To help ensure a safe return to school, every possible step should be taken to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children, young people and staff in schools. The Scottish Government is working with partners on the COVID-19 Education Recovery Group and more widely to develop key messaging for staff, parents and others about that return. From an adherence and compliance perspective, it is extremely important that schools remind staff, learners and parents of the need to follow all the relevant guidance for example 2m distancing, face coverings, hand hygiene etc.
No other restrictions are being eased in order to provide the headroom to support an initial return of some learners and therefore ensuring the right behaviours. For example, parents should avoid contacts with other parents, children and young people at the school gates, on the way to school and after school in order to try and reduce community spread/outbreaks. Schools can assist with this by, for example, having staggered start/finish times.
More detailed advice is available in paragraph 104 of the reducing risks guidance.
The existing Coronavirus: reducing risks in schools guidance provides detailed advice on physical distancing in schools. The COVID-19 Advisory Sub-Group on Education and Children’s Issues advice published on 3 February reiterated the importance of maintaining appropriate physical distancing in school given the new variants and the high current prevalence of COVID-19.
It has therefore been decided that, as an additional protective measure, 2m distancing should be put in place at the current time between secondary-aged leaners, in addition to continuing to be in place for staff in secondary schools. This applies to all learners in secondary schools including vulnerable children and the children of key workers. Physical distancing requirements in primary schools remain unchanged eg 2m distancing between adults not from the same household should be maintained. There should also be 2m distancing between adults and children whenever possible.
As part of the process of a phased return, every possible step should be taken to ensure the safety and wellbeing of children, young people and staff in schools. This includes mitigations such as enhanced cleaning, and the use of PPE for staff who are in close contact with learners in order to provide intimate care and personal support. Please refer to Coronavirus: reducing risks in schools guidance for further information.
It has been agreed with clinicians that schools may, if absolutely necessary, re-group vulnerable learners and children of key workers (i.e. move them into different groups to those they were in prior to the festive break). This should be kept to the minimum necessary to ensure effective, safe learning and teaching arrangements are in place. It should be done in a way which meets children’s needs and enables them to engage in learning and teaching which is age and stage appropriate. Schools should consider the arrangements they have in place to keep these children separate from those senior phase learners carrying out practical tasks wherever possible. Upon a full return to school, children and young people may return to their original groupings.
Following its meeting on 9 February the Advisory Sub-group recommended that 2m distancing should also apply on school transport for secondary schools. This is in keeping with current advice that dedicated school transport should be regarded as an extension of the school estate. This is a precautionary approach, which will be reviewed as the phased return to in-person learning proceeds, and as more evidence becomes available on transmission of the new virus and its prevalence in the community. This includes services used for key worker or vulnerable children.
This requirement also applies to secondary age learners who are transported to school via taxi or private hire vehicle. In this case we recommend that learners from only one household travel in a taxi/private hire vehicle. Where dedicated transport is provided for secondary age learners with additional support needs there is a requirement to balance the wellbeing needs of the learner. Local authorities should consider the support available for secondary age learners with additional support needs who are using school transport. They should take appropriate actions to reduce risk where adherence to strict physical distancing may not be possible. School and local authority transport teams may wish to work together to identify whether it is appropriate to transport learners from the same class grouping ‘bubble’ in the same vehicle, subject to an assessment of the specific needs of the learners involved and with the use of appropriate mitigations.
Local authority transport teams will need to work closely with operators to ensure that arrangements are in place to support the introduction of 2m physical distancing such as, the use of signage and seat covers to encourage passengers to sit apart. Schools should ensure it is made clear to their learners the importance of observing the 2m physical distancing requirement during this time. It is important to note that the 2m physical distancing requirement does not apply to school transport services (including taxis and private hire vehicles) that are used to transport primary age learners to school.
The advice remains that face coverings should be worn by children aged 5 years and over on dedicated school transport (unless exemptions apply) in line with the position on public transport.
At its meeting on 9 February, the Advisory Sub-group specifically considered whether advice on face-coverings should be strengthened in order to require medical grade face masks to be worn in secondary schools. However the clinical view was that such a requirement was not commensurate with the risk in school settings, and that cloth face-coverings, when combined with the other, more important, mitigations of physical distancing and hand hygiene, were considered appropriate in schools. This is in line with the current World Health Organisation (WHO) checklist to support schools re-opening which suggests that medical masks are only required under certain conditions (e.g. for immunocompromised children or those with other diseases, in consultation with the child’s medical provider).
For these reasons, the sub-group has concluded that its previous advice on face-coverings in schools and ELC settings must be maintained. However, the sub-group did advise that schools and ELC settings should consider whether additional guidance, practical demonstrations, or communications for children, young people and staff to support the correct wearing, storage and disposal of face coverings, including the use of hygiene products when doing so, would support better efficacy of face coverings.
The Scottish Government will regularly review the policy position on face coverings in light of emerging scientific evidence and advice. It remains our judgement that face coverings provide adequate protection for use in the community and in most workplaces because they are worn in addition to taking other measures, such as physical distancing, hand hygiene, cleaning and symptom vigilance. The current face covering guidance on the Scottish Government website recommends:
- that face coverings are made of cloth or other textiles and should be two, and preferably three, layers thick and fit snugly while allowing you to breathe easily
- that schools follow and endorse best practice on how to wash, store, wear and dispose of face coverings
- workplaces endorse and support staff to follow the best practice in the use of face coverings
Any decision to use medical grade masks or PPE in schools (or any specific workplace settings) would need to be informed by an organisation risk assessment, undertaken with health and safety experts and public health advisers.
The existing heating and ventilation sections within Coronavirus: reducing risks in schools is still considered to be robust and appropriate.
Council teams are meeting regularly to discuss issues relating to heating and ventilation in schools and share expertise to optimise their individual strategies. The period of school closure is being utilised to carry out the assessments and practical mitigations in accord with the current guidance, and this is being done in collaboration with local education and union colleagues. Examples of typical mitigations being carried out in this period are:
- accelerated repair and maintenance of windows and vents
- procurement and installation of fixed and mobile C02 monitoring equipment
- re-allocation of existing spaces to align available ventilation with occupant numbers
The management of single cases, clusters and outbreaks of COVID-19 is led by local health protection teams (HPTs) alongside local partners, such as schools and local authorities through an Incident Management Team (IMT). A cluster or outbreak of COVID-19 occurs when a school has two or more confirmed cases of COVID-19 within 14 days. If a plausible transmission link between two or more cases is identified within the school setting, this is indicative of an ‘outbreak’; if not, it is referred to as a ‘cluster’. The previous guidance on this is unchanged.