Lessons on TV if flu hits

14th August 2009 at 01:00
Government in talks with broadcasters over contingency plans for a swine flu escalation

The Scottish Government is in talks with broadcasters to provide "lessons on air" if schools have to close for lengthy periods to stop the spread of swine flu, The TESS can reveal.

Contingency planning guidance on "remote learning" also outlines plans to lend school laptops to pupils without home computers and to set up collection points for lessons at local libraries.

Schools would be informed of changes to educational radio and television programmes so that they could link materials to the broadcasts and send them to pupils' homes either by post or electronically.

Setting up a free-to-air digital channel dedicated to education is under consideration, the document discloses, but this would depend on progress in expanding digital TV and there are fears that some pupils might be left without access.

"We would therefore hope that at least a reasonable proportion of educational programming could appear on terrestrial channels, though clearly what would be most appropriate and its availability will be the subject of ongoing discussions," the Government states.

Its guidance urges schools and councils to look at how they could continue lessons in the event of lengthy school closures. They are asked to find out which pupils have computer access at home and how they could get schoolwork to them.

School laptops could be lent to those without IT, it said, but other solutions would also be necessary. Lessons might be sent to pupils in the post or picked up from a central point, such as a library. It might also be necessary to provide contact details for teachers so that pupils or parents could reach them during school hours to ask work-related questions.

The guidance, Planning for a Human Influenza Pandemic: Guidance for Schools on Supporting Learning if Schools have to Close for Extended Periods, adds that pupils in exam years should be "top of the list", especially those taking Highers and Advanced Highers.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority has "detailed contingency plans to deal with disruption", the guidance states, but it nevertheless urges schools to ensure they are collecting the appropriate "alternative candidate evidence" in case pupils cannot sit exams.

In the case of young children, whose learning is based more on active play, the guidance suggests compiling "simple straightforward advice" for parents on how to support their children's learning.

Parents could also be provided with activity sacks to take home, although consideration would have to be given to infection control.

A list of up-to-date contact details for all pupils is highlighted as being essential.

Even if schools were to close, it would be business as usual for staff, unless they had to look after their own children or were ill themselves, the guidance suggests.

In the worst case scenario, a third of teachers might be absent for around two weeks, it says.

Guidance published in 2006 by the then Scottish Executive Education Department predicted a flu pandemic could lead to 25-50 per cent of the population being infected and between 50,000 and 750,000 people in the UK dying.

Researchers at Imperial College, London, said early and prolonged school closures could reduce the number of cases at the peak of the pandemic by up to 40 per cent. But in an article in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal, they also warned that closures could have no effect because sometimes they came too late, or children mixed with each other outside school.

A total of 20 schools in Scotland were closed at some point between the outbreak of the H1N1 virus earlier this year and the start of the summer holidays, affecting about 2,000 children. England has not ruled out extending the summer break as a means of controlling the spread of the virus, but the Scottish Government this week insisted that schools would re-open as normal.

It hopes to be ready to begin a mass immunisation programme by autumn, prioritising schoolchildren, but said it did not yet know if the vaccine would be ready for use by the time pupils return after the October break.

Nicola Sturgeon, the Health Secretary, said this week that no "final decision" had been taken on whether all pupils should be immunised. That would come within two weeks and it would be a combined decision by UK ministers that would apply to all parts of the country.

A Scottish Government spokesperson added: "The start point for the programme will need to take account of the procurement process for the vaccine, the licensing position and scientific advice about safety."

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