Coronavirus: Nicola Sturgeon accused of ‘dithering’ over school return

Scotland’s first minister has been accused of “dithering” over plans to reopen the country’s schools.

Pupils are due to return to a “blended” model of schooling from 11 August that will see learning split between home and the classroom.

There have been concerns about the impact of part-time schooling on working parents, and on children from deprived backgrounds.

It is not yet known how long the blended model will be in place.

Plans being drawn up by councils would have a third of pupils in school at any one time – meaning some pupils could potentially only spend one day a week in class.

The Scottish Conservatives said the government needed to be “far more creative” in finding ways of getting pupils back into school full-time.

And Labour said the government must “pull out all the stops” to tackle a growing “education emergency”.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said her government would “move heaven and earth” to get schools “back to normal as quickly as possible”.

However, she said she would not “act recklessly and put the lives of children, teachers and the wider community at risk”.

And she said she expected to announce on Thursday that Scotland can move to the next phase in her “route map” towards lifting the coronavirus lockdown.

Scottish schools are all due to re-open from 11 August, but will not be able to accommodate all pupils at the same time because of social distancing rules.

Some councils have already said this will mean only a third of pupils will be able to attend school at once.

There have been questions over how long the blended model will continue, with Education Secretary John Swinney initially saying it was “unlikely” that schools could return to normal before the end of the coming school year.

Mr Swinney also said that next year’s exams could be pushed back.

But Ms Sturgeon later then insisted that it was “absolutely not the case that we are planning for blended learning to last a year or anything like it”.

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Scottish Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw said parents were looking for “a commitment from ministers to try and get schools back to normal” as quickly as possible.

He said the government “needs to be far more creative” in its plans and be open to radical proposals such as bringing in extra teachers to boost staffing numbers, and to fund councils to turn other buildings into temporary classrooms.

Mr Carlaw went on to accuse Ms Sturgeon of having only offered “soft words matched by a record of non-delivery and months of dithering”.

The first minister replied that she would “move heaven and earth” to solve the issue, saying she wanted to get schools and the economy “back to normal as quickly as possible”

However she added: “All of that has to be safe – we cannot have memories so short that we forget we are dealing with a virus that is dangerous and potentially deadly, and it has not gone away.

“We must continue to move forward in a careful and phased way.”

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said the government had offered “nothing but mixed messages” on education, and claimed there had been “chaos” with Ms Sturgeon contradicting the education secretary and her advisors.

He said the government must offer councils additional resources to tackle the “education emergency”, adding: “We need to pull out all the stops to make sure our children return to school safely as soon as possible.”

Unions have said more funding will have to be made available if extra teachers are to be taken on and temporary classrooms set up.

Ms Sturgeon said her government was tackling a health emergency, an economic emergency and a schools emergency simultaneously, and that “we cannot play fast and loose with the safety of children”.

She said councils had been given extra resources and that the government would work with them to see how plans for blended learning could be enhanced.

Meanwhile, Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie said the government had “put parents in an impossible position” by asking them to go back to work while still having to home-school their children.

Ms Sturgeon replied that “it’s a global health pandemic that’s putting people in an impossible position”, but stressed that she recognised things were “incredibly difficult” for teachers and parents.

On Tuesday, Devi Sridhar – the chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh and part of the government’s Covid-19 advisory team – said her “personal view” was that if coronavirus case numbers could be brought low enough by August then “schools should re-open as normally as possible”.

She said this would mean “kids back full-time and able to play and interact together”.

It prompted the first minister to agree that “if we can suppress the virus sufficiently and have other measures in place, nearer normality may be possible”.

In a series of posts on Twitter, Ms Sturgeon added: “For anyone arguing for schools to be back to normal as soon as possible and also for an acceleration of our plan to ease lockdown – the route to the former is further suppression of the virus. That requires continued care in easing lockdown.”

Ms Sridhar later tweeted that she was “completely aligned” with the Scottish government’s approach, prompting Conservative MSP Ruth Davidson to suggest the advisor had “got the hairdryer treatment over the phone”.

Ms Sturgeon insisted this was “untrue”, and said it was “utterly disgraceful to suggest that a highly respected expert…would be susceptible to that”.

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