A school Christmas holiday extension to reduce the spread of coronavirus has been ruled out by Education Secretary John Swinney.
The Scottish Government considered extending the fortnight break to three weeks to help curb circulation of Covid-19 after relaxed restrictions over the festive period.
However, Mr Swinney said he had decided against the move as the risk of transmission was less with children in the controlled environment of a school than mixing outside school during a prolonged break.
He also urged local authorities to ensure holidays of school staff were not disrupted by having to trace and call contacts of cases confirmed in schools.
The announcement will anger teachers, said the EIS union, who wanted a shift to blended learning in the last week of term to minimise the risk of infection ruining the festive period for staff, pupils and parents.
Schools in Dundee, Angus and Perth and Kinross will break off, as planned, on December 23 and resume on January 7, while Fife pupils finish on December 22 and return on January 6.
With the extra school Christmas holiday or a period of blended or remote learning they could have closed on December 18 and reopened on January 11.
Public health advice
In a letter to the government’s education and skills committee, Mr Swinney said: “The public health advice that I received is to keep schools open as planned as the controlled school environment is more preferable to social mixing outside of school if schools are closed early.
“In addition, vulnerable children may be at greater risk if they are out of school for an extended period.
“The view of the chief social work advisor is that being in school is a very significant protective factor for the most vulnerable children and the longer children are out of school the more chance there is of hidden harm.
“Public health advice is, on balance, that there would be less transmission of Covid-19 through children and young people being in school than mixing out of school.
Public health advice is, on balance, that there would be less transmission of Covid-19 through children and young people being in school than mixing out of school.”
Education Secretary John Swinney
“Adding this to the issues around vulnerable children and the need for childcare for key worker children, public health advice is to not change term dates at either end.
“I am also mindful that an extension to the school holidays could cause significant difficulties for working parents.”
There is no evidence that schools and nurseries are driving transmission, Mr Swinney said, and “no clear rationale for disrupting them and children’s education”.
Some local authorities have already made alternative arrangements for contact tracing for cases identified in schools during the holidays, he said, and others should do the same.
This could be by having named individuals on-call with overtime payments or giving local authority teams access to relevant information, he said.
The national contact tracing centre was, he said, ready to support work where cases were identified in schools.
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said: “Many teachers across Scotland will be disappointed and angered at the Scottish Government decision today, which once again shows a complete disregard for the concerns and welfare of teachers.
The Scottish Government… once again shows a complete disregard for the concerns and welfare of teachers.”
Larry Flanagan, Educational Institute of Scotland
“The EIS had asked that schools move to remote learning in the final week to ensure that senior staff did not find themselves having to work during the Christmas break to deal with any Covid outbreaks and also to minimise the risk for staff, pupils and parents of infections ruining the Christmas break.
“Allowing this would have helped protect staff, students and their families during the festive season and reduce the risk of pupils or teachers being required to self-isolate over Christmas – while also ensuring that education provision continued via remote learning.”
He called for lateral flow tests to be made available to school staff to allow them to be with potentially vulnerable family members without the fear of putting them at risk.
Parents’ views mixed
Parents group 50/50 said there were mixed views when the proposal to extend the school Christmas holiday emerged.
Spokeswoman Janis McCulloch said: “What we are seeing from parents who are part of our campaign is a divided picture.
“Much of it comes down to your own personal circumstances. For instance, not all parents have annual leave that they could have used to cover any extra holidays.
We think everyone would welcome seeing the evidence that underpins this decision.”
Janis McCulloch, 50/50
“On the other hand, there are many parents worried about transmission of the virus to elderly grandparents who would have welcomed an early break so they could isolate before carrying out their Christmas plans.
“We think everyone would welcome seeing the evidence that underpins this decision.”
The UsForThem Scotland group, however, welcomed the decision.
Organiser Jo Bisset said: “Parents across Scotland will be relieved at this news and pleased the Scottish Government has listened to them.
“Taking children out of school for another week would have damaged their education at a time when it’s never been under greater threat.
“It would also have caused parents a severe headache in terms of childcare, especially those who rely on shift work for income.
“The Scottish Government has been right to keep schools open in the face of pressure from the unions, and parents will be very grateful for this latest commitment to education.”