Covid in schools: What will next term look like?

Jun 26, 2021 by

Will masks, social distancing and the dreaded self-isolation be part of school life for another year from August?

The end of the school term usually brings a big sigh of relief for pupils and teachers and this year, that sigh will be even louder.

This session has been the first, and hopefully only, school year carried out entirely under Covid restrictions. Repeated home isolations for some pupils, face-coverings in class and the cancellation of exams brought constant disruption.

Schools reopen in August. But will next term be more normal?

Short presentational grey line

Isolations

Parents have described the feeling of dread when their child’s school tells them they have been identified as a close contact and need to self-isolate.

But the lack of physical distancing between pupils, the fact they are interacting five days a week and that secondary pupils can be with different groups in each class, means the chances of being asked to isolate even if there is just one positive case in a school, can be high for both young people and their teachers.

In the autumn term, the number of pupils isolating at one time reached a peak of almost 30,000. We also heard of some pupils having to isolate multiple times. It was for this reason that the formal exam diet was cancelled for a second year in a row.

As we have approached the summer break the numbers isolating were creeping up again to more than 24,000 on 22 June, with the number of Covid cases at just over 800.

It’s this disparity between the number of cases and the numbers isolating which caused some to question whether the 10-day isolation period could be relaxed or replaced with testing.

The Scottish government says it is reviewing its approach to self-isolation, although there is no time frame for when this might be completed. It is expected to have a bearing on the decision around exams, coming in August, so we could expect it before then.

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, believes what happens in schools should reflect what is happening in wider society.

He said: “Come August, schools will be reopening on the same basis as they have closed, so any changes which are introduced will be after the start of term.

“There is debate around teenagers being vaccinated and the issue around self-isolation will depend on the level of teenager transmission.

“At the moment that is very high and without vaccination, I can’t see that potential in-school transmission being reduced, so I think self-isolation will remain an option, or possibly a requirement, unless there is a vaccination programme put in place.’

Leon Cameron is going into 6th year. Vice chairman of Glasgow Youth Council, the 16-year-old thinks vaccines will be key.

He said: “I think the obvious answer is for self-isolation in schools to continue. If we didn’t do it, it would probably lead to more cases which would be a problem.

“If the vaccine programme was rolled out to teenagers by August, then we would be safer and it would minimise the risk of having to self-isolate.”

Masks

All secondary pupils in Scotland have been wearing face-coverings in school corridors and classrooms since they returned to in-school learning in the spring. At the start of the school year last August, pupils didn’t need to wear them at all, the rules then gradually changed, widening out to include more pupils in more settings.

We know that the Scottish government is looking at the role of masks in general society after 9 August, when many restrictions will be lifted.

However, they are still expected to be worn in some instances including shops and public transport and, potentially, in schools.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said this week: “Although no final decision has been taken, it may be that, in some settings, which might include schools, we ask people to continue to wear face coverings for a period longer.”

Tina Woolnough from the parents organisation, Connect, sees polarised views among parents about the wearing of masks in class, and wants clarity.

“If you go into a cafe now, you walk in wearing your mask and you sit down and take it off,” she said.

“We need some consistency in wider society about what happens so that young people know what to do and so that parents know what to support when they go back into school.”

Exams

There have now been two years without formal school exams, cancelled because of the pandemic. The algorithm used to moderate grades last year was widely criticised and ended up with a government U-turn and reversion to teacher estimates.

This year, the plan was meant to be continuous assessment, but schools having to go to online learning for almost four months during that time meant the system was adapted and ended up resembling what some branded “exams in all but name” without the study leave.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 119082788_education_leon_frame_296.jpg
Leon Cameron is going into sixth year having never sat a formal exam

The Scottish government is replacing the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) exams body, but that could take years. We will be told what is happening with next year’s exams before schools return this August.

Education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville said the decision on whether to hold a more normal exam diet could be linked to the review on self-isolation, telling parliament: “Any changes here could have a significant bearing on the extent of disruption for individual learners in the next school year, and in turn our decision on whether to hold an exam diet or use an alternative model of certification.'”

Leon has never sat a formal exam and he would to see a mix of both scenarios.

He said: “The system needs stability. I feel like if there were continuous assessments, say from August onwards to gather evidence, then that would be helpful and bit less disorganised and less chaotic. I’d also then be up for sitting a more normal exam at the end of the year.”

Larry Flanagan said the continuous assessment model would need to change.

He said: “The alternative certification model which was applied this year has created a huge workload pressure for teachers who have been working flat out to deliver these qualifications.

“If we are not looking at an exam diet, I think we need a contingency arrangement which is more manageable than this year’s has been.”

So, back to normality?

At first, it doesn’t look like it. Schools are preparing to go back in August with the same mitigations they have in place at the moment. The feeling among school leaders seems to be that it’s much harder to go back to restrictions both practically and psychologically, once they have been lifted.

If we really are heading towards what Nicola Sturgeon calls “much greater normality” in August, before schools go back, then there might be pressure to take steps like removing masks in classrooms and cutting periods of isolation for pupils, fairly quickly.

What happens with longer term issues, such as exams, will depend on forecasting further into the future and although pupils, parents and teachers will be keen for certainty, they have become used to things changing, even after plans are made.

The Scottish government said it was closely monitoring developing evidence on vaccination and transmission risk, and would continue to review whether self-isolation requirements remained necessary and appropriate.

This would include whether and to what extent the requirement for children and young people to self-isolate as contacts of positive cases could safely be significantly reduced in future.

On face coverings, a spokeswoman said that the Covid-19 education recovery group would develop updated guidance to support schools to reopen safely after the summer holidays.

She said: “We expect that advice will make clear which baseline mitigations should be retained in schools as we move beyond level zero, and which should be removed at the earliest safe opportunity following the return.

“Where mitigations can safely and practically be removed immediately after the summer holidays, schools will be asked to do so as quickly as is operationally feasible.”

The spokeswoman also confirmed that the education secretary would outline plans for 2022 national qualifications by the start of the new school year in August.

Source: Covid in schools: What will next term look like? – BBC News

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