Advice presented to First Minister on the return to face to face learning for children and young people.
The impacts of COVID-19 have been significant on health, the economy and society. For many children and young people there have been negative impacts on both their physical and mental health, due to the restrictions brought in to reduce transmission. These restrictions have also had a major impact on the education of children.
Moving to on-line learning for school children (except vulnerable children and children of critical workers) was a difficult decision which Ministers made in order to reduce community transmission of COVID-19 including the associated risks of travel to and from school and social mixing outside of the classroom environment. Protecting essential health and social care services continues to be a priority, especially in response to the increased threat posed by more infectious variants and has led to on-going restrictions on face to face education and the closure of other sectors.
The potential to relax restrictions remains limited by the new variant, which is more transmissible. However, with Rt currently below 1, any headroom should be dedicated to a phased return of primary school children for example, starting with children in the foundation phase, who have a lower risk of infection, and secondary school children, in small cohorts and employing a blended learning approach.
Evidence suggests that schools have been successful in providing safe environments for children and teachers. Effective mitigations are more important than ever with a more transmissible variant and these should continue and be strengthened where possible. These mitigations include reducing the numbers mixing at any one time and in any one place; maintaining secure contact groups; vigilant social distancing; hand hygiene and the use of face coverings as set out in the guidance.
Based on our understanding of where transmission risk is greatest, out of school restrictions identical to those ‘Stay at Home’ requirements imposed on the general population, must be applied rigorously. There must be a clear understanding that contact groups ('school bubbles') only apply within the school setting. The importance of avoiding transmission between teachers, as well as between staff and pupils should be emphasised.
Dr Frank Atherton
Chief Medical Officer
5th February 2021