Covid restrictions briefing: what it means for schools

Nicola Sturgeon has given schools details about what the easing of coronavirus restrictions will entail

Henry Hepburn

Covid restrictions briefing: what it means for schools (Copyright holder: PA PICTURE DESK Copyright notice: PA Media Picture by: Andy Buchanan)

The current rules on face coverings will remain in place when the new school year starts later this month and one-metre physical distancing will also be required, first minister Nicola Sturgeon has said.

However, rules requiring "blanket isolation" of entire classes are to be relaxed, she said during a coronavirus briefing in an online session of the Scottish Parliament this afternoon.

She also outlined measures designed to improve ventilation in schools and the need for secondary staff and students to be vaccinated before the start of the new school year.

Related: Thousands of teenagers to get jab before school return

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Background: When will Covid-19 rules ease in Scottish schools?

News: Vaccinating teens would have been ‘very controversial’

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Most legal Covid-19 restrictions in Scotland will be removed from Monday 9 August, Ms Sturgeon confirmed.

The first minister told a meeting of MSPs that Scotland would "move beyond Level 0" from Monday, as had been previously planned.

In schools, said Ms Sturgeon, "the blanket isolation of whole classes will no longer be routine – instead, a more targeted approach will identify close contacts at the highest risk of infection".

This, she said, meant "fewer young people will be asked to self-isolate and most will be asked to self-isolate for a much shorter period of time", which was "especially important as we approach the start of the new school year".

The new approach to self-isolation, Ms Sturgeon said, "is important to minimise disruption to education", but she added that "we have decided to retain, for the first six weeks of the new academic term, most of the other mitigations that are currently in place in schools".

The first minister explained that the "unique environment of schools, where large numbers of unvaccinated children and young people mix with adult staff" meant that, for up to six weeks, there would be "a continued requirement for staff to keep at least a metre distance from each other and from children and young people, while on the school estate".

Ms Sturgeon added: "And we've also decided, after careful consideration, to retain the current requirements for face coverings in schools for staff and for children aged 12 or over. That includes asking young people and staff in secondary schools to wear face coverings during lessons and while inside school buildings."

The first minister said: "I am acutely aware that many, many young people find this really difficult. And so it will be kept under review, but for now we consider this an important protection for them and for others in school."

The Scottish government is also "strengthening guidance" on ventilation in schools, and Ms Sturgeon said: "Many local authorities have already taken steps to improve ventilation in the school estate, and this work has highlighted the value of CO2 monitors."

She added: "The new guidance published today makes clear that all schools and daycare services for children must have access to CO2 monitoring, through either fixed or mobile devices, and that these should be used to assess the quality of ventilation in schools and childcare settings and identify any necessary improvements.

"These assessments will be ongoing obviously over the coming weeks, but we expect them to be completed and necessary improvements identified by the October half term, and I can confirm today that we are making available to local authorities, an additional £10 million to support this work.

"Ventilation is one of the most important ways in which the risk of Covid transmission can be reduced, and so improving it will be vital now and in the future to ensure that schools and childcare centres are as safe as possible."

Ms Sturgeon also said that "local authorities and schools will ask all secondary pupils and all school staff to take a lateral flow test one or two days before returning after the holidays, and then to take tests twice a week after that".

She added: "This continues to be an important additional way in which Covid can be identified, even [in] people who do not have symptoms."

Ms Sturgeon also said during her briefing that Covid jabs for 16 and 17-year-olds could be approved within days. She was said “veering towards expecting” that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) would soon outline updated guidance for young people having the coronavirus jab.

Previously, at the weekend, the Scottish government had said that teenagers with certain health conditions would be vaccinated against Covid before schools return from the summer break.

EIS teaching union assistant secretary David Belsey said: "The EIS welcomes the Scottish government plans for schools to reopen with broadly the same mitigations in place as when they closed earlier this year. We agree the continued wearing of face masks, physical distancing measures, effective ventilation of classrooms and good hygiene regimes need to remain in full force.

"The Scottish government’s acknowledgement of the importance of  strengthening the guidance around ventilation and the additional funding to close any gaps in this provision is extremely welcome and a significant improvement to the current mitigations."

Mr Belsey added: "The completion of vaccination programmes for all school staff is vital and the EIS believes that voluntary vaccination of 12-17 year-olds would be sensible and may go some way towards making schools safer places and help to address the anxieties of some young people.

"The six-week period of no changes to mitigations will provide a degree of reassurance to school staff and some certainty as to what to expect when returning to classrooms. This will also allow for meaningful consultation between Scottish government, local authorities and teachers’ unions before any further changes."

Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said: "We welcome confirmation that ministers have accepted the NASUWT’s arguments for maintaining current Covid safety mitigations when schools reopen after the summer break, including the requirement for face coverings to be worn by pupils and school staff.

"No one wants to see a further wave of infections when schools reopen for the autumn term and it is essential that a cautious approach continues to be followed."

Dr Roach added: "However, in addition to the need for caution, greater urgency is also needed from the government. Whilst there has been strong evidence for some time supporting the extended use of CO2 monitors and the need for greater investment in improving ventilation in classrooms, the government has been slow to respond.

"Today’s announcement that all schools will have access to CO2 monitors, however, does not go far enough. CO2 monitors should be in place in every school as part of an effective Covid safety response.

"The changes to the rules on self-isolation of close contacts of Covid cases will make it even more important that action is taken to guarantee compliance with all Covid safety requirements and that safety is not left to chance."

Despite today's announcement on Scotland moving beyond level 0 on 9 August, the pandemic is not over, Ms Sturgeon said.

The first minister told MSPs: "This change is significant and hard-earned. The sacrifices everyone has made over the past year-and-a-half can never be overstated.

"However, while this move will restore a substantial degree of normality, it is important to be clear that it does not signal the end of the pandemic or a return to life exactly as we knew it before Covid struck.

"Declaring freedom from, or victory over, this virus is premature. The harm the virus can do, including through the impact of long Covid, should not be underestimated. And its ability to mutate may yet pose us real challenges.

"So even as we make this move today, care and caution will still be required, and that is why I want to focus now on the protections and guidance that will remain in place after 9 August."

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Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn is the news editor for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Henry_Hepburn

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