Counselling for pupils who have lost loved ones to Covid-19 is just one of a raft of measures Dundee City Council is to put in place when schools return in August.
The local authority’s education spokesman Stewart Hunter said children would be given “whatever support they need” as schools across the city prepare for the “full return” announced by Holyrood on Tuesday.
Initially, a “blended learning” approach was to be taken by the Scottish Government, combining in-school learning with teaching pupils at home using the internet and other resources.
However, on Tuesday, Education Secretary John Swinney said the plan was now to have all pupils at school full-time from August 11.
A raft of plans for the pupils’ return are currently being worked out by council bosses and include hygiene measures which will be used in an attempt to stop the spread of coronavirus.
But emotional support will also be offered to pupils.
Mr Hunter, who joined council leader John Alexander in an interview with the Tele, explained: “We know we’ve had a number of deaths in Dundee through the coronavirus. And I think it would be unrealistic to not think we’ll have some of our young people who have been affected by that. And, our staff.
“So, we just want to do that kind of check with them as well, so that’s all part of the individual risk assessments that we’ll do before the kids come back.
“What we want to have is an open dialogue with parents, so we’re actually talking to them and saying, ‘This is what it’s going to look like, what does your child need?’ and we’ll take it from there.
“We want to make sure that when they come back, the right support is in place, so whether they need counselling or anything else.
“Some people might have had a loss in their family, some people maybe they’ve had a family member in hospital for a long period of time.
“So we need to be very sensitive to that, and we’ll work with them and give them whatever support they need – whether it’s a pupil, whether it’s a staff member.
“Because, as we’ve said right from the start, safety is the priority for us. The wellbeing of all our young people and staff is important to us as well. So we’ll put that support in place, and if anybody needs it, they’ll get it.”
Extra hygiene practices will also be put in place such as handwashing and sanitising at schools in Dundee, and work is currently being carried out to prepare for pupils sharing classrooms, toilets and dining areas safely.
Mr Hunter said: “I think in one sense, we’re pleased that we’re heading towards the 100% (school day), because that’s what we want. We don’t want to be doing 50% blended and want to get 100% and get the kids back in schools.
“So we’re pleased that we’re at least heading in that direction, rather than heading back the way, which, if things hadn’t gone right with the virus, then that’s what potentially could have happened.”
‘We’re parents too – of course we have concerns’
Both councillors acknowledged their own children will be returning to school and nursery settings in August, and shared the concerns that all parents would.
Mr Hunter said: “I’ve said this from day one, our priority is the safety of staff and pupils. I get that the concept of social distancing, especially for our youngest children, isn’t going to be easy.
“I’m a parent myself, and our kids are going back to school, so we want to make sure that for all the kids it’s safe. And that’s the kind of work we’re going to be doing over the next six weeks, to whatever the plan is when we go back in – and let’s hope it is the 100% – that it’s going to be safe for staff and pupils.”
Mr Alexander whose children will both be going to nursery in August said: “If you think (hygiene and social distancing) is hard for primary school children, try having nursery-age children.
“My youngest is just about to start nursery in August so this will be his first contact with a nursery setting.
“So, personally and professionally, safety is our number one priority.”
‘First week will be a “soft week” for kids returning’
Mr Hunter said to help ease pupils in after three months of absence from school – or in some cases pupils starting their first day at either primary or secondary school – a “soft week” would be used to transition back into full-time education.
He said: “So (children) are not going to be straight back in on the first week, all your classes etc, it’s going to be a soft week.
“When they come back in they’re not going to have been in school for around five months, so we just want to do a bit of a check with them, make sure everything’s ok and see where they all are.
“We still have some things we’re going to need to maintain for the safety of everyone and to make sure we do beat this virus.
“That hopefully will give some parents some reassurance that we are taking this safety seriously and will see what we are putting in place.”
Mr Hunter added that the plan was for the benefit of teachers and other school staff as well.
‘The timing was right for John Swinney’s announcement’
Both councillors were in agreement that the deputy first minister’s announcement was better to be made now, rather than weeks before term time was due to recommence.
Mr Alexander said: “I think the timing’s right. If we’d left this later, teachers would have been finding out about it whilst they were on their holidays.
“The first question you asked us was, ‘How are teachers feeling?’.
“I’m sure it would have been a very different answer, had John Swinney made this announcement two or three weeks before mid-summer holidays, and teachers were finding out about it when they had no ability to think about it or speak to their colleagues, etc.”
He added: “I’m not the education minister, so I think John Swinney has made the right call based on the input he’s had from parents, teachers’ unions and many others.”
Mr Hunter added that while parents may rightly be shocked at a decision being made at what seems like very short notice, the council had been operating on an almost day-to-day basis in terms of service delivery changing, for the last three months, so this type of situation was something councillors and officers were prepared for.
“For me, I’m just pleased that we’re heading towards 100% – because that means we’re starting to beat the virus,” he said.
“That means we’re hopefully getting closer to getting back to normal – not just in schools, but across the city. The worst thing would have been if he had had to stand up and say, ‘Actually things have got worse, and we’re going to have to go back into proper lockdown’.”
‘Do most parents agree with the decision to go back full-time in August?’
Mr Alexander said: “If I’m answering as a parent, and (based on) the conversations I’ve had with other parents, then yes, I think they do.
“And I think they understand the nature of this virus is that things will change – never mind weekly – but daily.
“We could be in a very different position in three weeks’ time, we might have to see, as you described it, a ‘U-turn’ in three weeks’ time, if the circumstances dictate that that is required.
“People understand that this is something that we have never dealt with in our lifetime. It is a global pandemic and you can’t compare the approach taken in one country with another.
“So I think far more parents will be supportive of this. They are keen to have their kids back to school, from an educational point-of-view.
“People want their kids to be getting the best education they possibly can. And I’m not doing a disservice to the parents who have been doing the homeschooling – I think we’re all amateurs at the end of the day and doing our best, but that’s it – we’re doing our best, we’re not teachers.”
Mr Alexander also said that with many people now returning to work, there would be some relief for parents who had to juggle their worklife and childcare if the “blended model” of learning had gone ahead.