Getting schools back safely

More needs done to get schools up and running safely, says Alison Johnstone.

It’s been a tough three months for almost everyone. Far too many families have lost loved ones to COVID-19. For some, the virus has left them feeling weak and breathless. NHS and care home staff have been stretched to the limit.

It’s been tough too for those with precarious jobs and homes, who face an uncertain future. Businesses have lost trade and workers have faced dramatic losses of income.

And families with children have experienced the disruption of a sudden switch to online learning, with our teachers having to adapt to new ways of working in a matter of a few weeks.

It’s not the way anyone would have planned, and it’s been stressful. For some children, school is a vital source of respite, emotional support and even food. At the same time, however, there has been a shared recognition that these measures were needed to save lives and limit the spread of the virus.

As we adapt to these challenges, there has been a hope that, come August, our schools might be back to something closer to normal. So when Edinburgh announced plans that would see young people in school only one day a week for some of the first few weeks of term it was met with concern.

Not only from stressed parents in how they support their children; or in relation to being able to get back to work at some time – although both are issues. Most concerning of all has been knowing that there are many thousands of young people who just haven’t been able to engage with online learning at all. The “attainment gap” between the wealthiest and poorest is becoming a chasm.

Prolonged school closures are harmful to children’s wellbeing and their educational attainment, but let’s recognise how difficult this is. Public health must remain the overriding priority, and many of our schools already have capacity problems. A lot of buildings are over 100 years old and in layouts that are difficult to adapt for safe distancing. The aim is to get more young people access to trained staff more of the time, but we need to recognise it isn’t going to feel “normal” for quite some time yet.

That is why I support proposals made by Green councillor colleague Steve Burgess for a range of ways in which school capacity and engagement can be extended. Can more be done interactively, using video and other tools? Can more community buildings be made available: halls, churches and other faith settings?

Outdoor learning can come into its own here. Former Green MSP Robin Harper was passionate about learning outdoors from his own 30 years as a teacher. It is far more than outdoor activities. It is using the great outdoors as a place for learning for all sorts of skills and knowledge: from P1 to Advanced Higher. It’s been a big part of how Denmark and Netherlands have got schools moving again and it’s been the norm in Norway for decades with weather at least as varied as Scotland’s.

The good news is that here in Edinburgh we already have staff with the skills and qualifications to make it a reality; and we have dozens of community and voluntary organisations desperate to make it happen.

Together we can get there.