Nicola Sturgeon announces return of younger pupils to schools in Scotland amid ‘progress’ against virus

Rebecca Speare-Cole
·4 min read
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon during a meeting at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, where she announced that lockdown restrictions are to be extended until at least the middle of February in Scotland, with schools remaining closed to the majority of pupils. Picture date: Tuesday January 19, 2021.
Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon (PA)
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coronavirus latest news

Nicola Sturgeon has announced that younger pupils will be able to start returning to schools in Scotland after half term.

Updating MSPs in Holyrood on Tuesday, the first minister said all children under school age in early learning and childcare will be able to return from 22 February.

Pupils in Primary 1 to Primary 3 will also be allowed back into school, as will those in the senior phase of secondary school for practical work necessary to complete national qualification courses.

Sturgeon added that only 5-8% of a secondary school roll will be allowed on the premises at any one time for these purposes.

Read: 'Almost impossible to stop highly transmissible virus variants entering UK', says expert

The first minister said: "The decisions I am about to outline are intended to give young people, parents and teachers as much notice as possible, but I must stress that they are subject to continued progress in suppressing the virus and will be subject to final confirmation in two weeks' time."

All schools have been closed under current restrictions which came into force when Scotland went into a full lockdown at the beginning of January.

Most pupils in Scotland are currently taking part in online learning, with only those deemed vulnerable and the children of key workers attending school.

The first minister announced that the phased return to schools, subject to confirmation on 16 February, would be supported by an expansion of the testing regime.

She said:"We are determined to get our children back to normal schooling just as quickly as it is safe to do so. It is our overriding priority."

Sturgeon also told MSPs that “progress” had been made in the fight against the virus as a result of compliance with lockdown restrictions.

But she added that the remain at home lockdown order for Level 4 areas must continue until at least the end of February.

She said "continued caution" was needed, adding that there could be some "gradual easing" from the start of March with an update on lifting measures to be given in two weeks.

It comes after Boris Johnson told MPs last week that reopening schools was a ”national priority” but added that schools in England would not reopen until at least March 8.

Watch: COVID-19: Boris Johnson says he hopes to reopen schools from 8 March

He revealed that his government would set out a roadmap for lifting lockdown in the week beginning 22 February, amounting to a three-week extension of England’s national lockdown.

Earlier this week, Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford said primary school children could begin a phased return to school just after half-term if COVID rates continue to fall.

On Tuesday, Sturgeon also set out additional measures on travel, including going further than current proposals by the UK for quarantine hotels and other measures aimed at making current travel rules “more effective”.

The government is facing calls to introduce harsher travel restrictions after experts have said only complete border closures or quarantine periods for all UK arrivals could potentially prevent the arrival of new variants.

Scottish government adviser Professor Jason Leitch told the BBC earlier on Tuesday that he has recommended Scottish ministers allow younger children to return, although he is reluctant to say older pupils – who will be working towards qualifications – can do the same.

“We’re heading in the right direction,” he said. “I can break the secret – you definitely won’t see all of lockdown lifted, but there is progress and therefore you’ve got to think, as public health advisers, what is the first thing you should do?

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“The most important thing is children. That’s what we’ve trailed in the last few weeks that, if we can, we will get some kids back to school.”

Asked about the possibility of older children returning, Prof Leitch said: “It gets more difficult at that end for a couple of reasons.

“The principal reason is that older kids behave like adults in relation to the virus, so they can spread the virus and the new variant spreads proportionately more easily even in that group. So we’ve got to be cautious.”

He added: “But, we don’t want kids not to get qualifications.”

Watch: COVID-19: SAGE warned only mandatory hotel quarantine for all would stop new variants