The Scottish Government’s advisory sub-group on education and children’s issues has published its official guidance on the phased return to in-person learning in schools and early learning and childcare (ELC) settings.
School and ELC buildings in Scotland have been closed since 4 January 2021 for most pupils, except for vulnerable children and the children of key workers. The precautionary measure was taken because of the increased number of Covid-19 cases in Scotland, with the bulk of new cases being the new variant of the virus.
It was seen as a priority to reopen schools and ELCs as soon as possible, and the Scottish Government commissioned the advisory sub-group to advise on the safest and most effective way to proceed.
22 February phased return
The report advises that ELCs, P1-P3 and small numbers of senior secondary pupils requiring practical in-school learning could return from 22 February, subject to specific conditions being met.
The sub-group’s deliberations are supported by evidence from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG), Public Health Scotland and Public Health England, wider published evidence and international experience.
In the recommendations, the sub-group acknowledges that progress in submitting the virus to the previous low levels is likely to take more time, so there will not be much relaxation of the current restrictions.
No return to normality yet
Any relaxation needs to be planned, staged and monitored. In addition, it should be emphasised that any easing does not suggest a return to wider ‘normality’.
The options for younger children and those with fewer numbers of children returning are likely to have a smaller impact on the R number.
For children to return to ELCs and schools, there must be an ongoing focus on measures to prevent community transmission. The priority of the phases for who returns to schools, etc and when will be based on transmission risks, educational and wider health concerns/benefits, and confidence in the mitigation measures.
Lower risk of transmission
Evidence continues to confirm that younger children are at lower risk of transmission and of clinical disease from Covid-19 than are older children and adults. There is no evidence of any difference in the risk of severe Covid-19 among pre-school, primary and secondary school teachers, relative to other adults of a similar age.
In areas where community prevalence is low, risks of cases and outbreaks in ELCs and school settings are low too, particularly in settings with younger children and when numbers are kept down.
But a staged return to in-person learning should be subject to continued reductions in prevalence and community transmission, no significant changes in the evidence, and reassurance that appropriate infection prevention and control mitigations are in place.