Last June, in a piece for Tes Scotland, I warned of the dangers of an impatient rush back to full-time schooling for pupils. I highlighted the risk that, over the long term, it would actually result in more time out of school for children because of further waves of the virus. I take no satisfaction in saying this, but…I told you so.
When it comes to dealing with Covid-19 in schools, the Scottish government needs to engage in some deep learning – from its own mistakes, and from the scientific data now emerging.
First minister Nicola Sturgeon has said that the lockdown we are now experiencing has come about because of the transmission rates of a new variant in the virus. But recent evidence has shown that even the "old" strain was spreading in schools.
Also this week: Call for government to rethink exam replacement plans
Additional support needs: ASN teachers call for blended learning over Covid fears
A Public Health Scotland (PHS) report from mid December showed that the risk of becoming a Covid-19 case was higher among Scottish teachers than the general population. Meanwhile, evidence from England, as reported by Tes, revealed huge added risks for teachers. A UK Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) report on data up to 2 December showed children aged 12-16 being seven times as likely to be the first case in their household compared to those over 17. Both the PHS and the Sage reports revealed dips in infections among school-age children during the October mid-term holidays.
If that is how the original strain of Covid was spreading among young people – and then among their teachers and into the general population – when schools were fully open, then no wonder the new variant, up to 70 per cent more transmissible, has required the current return to remote learning for the majority of pupils.
Things could have been different. Transmission rates for asymptomatic children were always "known unknowns" and, as I argued back in June, such uncertainties about how the virus affected children should have led to strict application of the precautionary principle by the Scottish government. Instead, ministers buckled under pressure from reckless, unprincipled lobbyists posing as anxious parent groups.
Would we be where we are now if teachers and more cautious parental voices had been listened to, and we had stuck to remote learning a little longer, or at least phased back with the blended models that schools had been preparing for? We’ll never know.
What we do know is that we must not allow the same mistake to be made again. As parents, we should demand policies that will ensure eradication of the virus. While the prospect of vaccinations offers some hope, it does not guarantee an end to transmissions.
Another impatient rush back to full-time schooling while the virus is still circulating will result in continual yo-yoing in and out of lockdown, and that will cause immense damage to our children’s long-term development and mental wellbeing, and to our teachers’ capacity to support them.
In the short term, the last thing we, as parents, should be doing during remote learning is putting pressure on teachers. Instead we should demand immediate and massive investment from the Scottish government to help school staff and our families cope with the pressures of home learning. And that means more than simply laptops and broadband.
It means huge numbers of additional teachers so that staff do not burn out from the large class sizes they have to support and the dangerously high number of pupil-contact hours that they are expected to ration into lockdown-manageable portions. Extra staff are also needed so that deep cuts to additional support needs staff of the past few years can be reversed and our most vulnerable pupils supported properly through the pandemic and thereafter.
And when “thereafter” does finally come, our whole system needs a comprehensive reset, not the in-name-only “recovery” of the past few months. What that means in practice will require much discussion, but in the meantime the Scottish government needs to remember something that all teachers and parents know very well: making mistakes is a natural part of growing up. When you accept them, reflect on them, talk about them, then you have a chance to learn deeply and avoid mistakes in the future.
When you don’t, you learn nothing: you repeat the same mistakes over and over, and vicious cycles continue – sometimes with awful consequences.
The writer is a parent and teacher in Scotland