Learning about Western Isles’ schools return

Our children’s education and the practicalities of school attendance to deal with the demands of the Covid-19 distancing restrictions has been one of the many thorny problems being tackled by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar over recent months.

By Melinda Gillen
Friday, 19th June 2020, 3:49 pm

The local authority’s education department now has the challenging task of devising a plan for how children will return to school in the new term starting in mid-August.

The department has published their initial four-phase ‘delivery plan’ for how schools in the Western Isles will manage the logistics of the new school day.

But with the prospect of part-time learning in school, combined with at home learning-activities, how this will look in practicality come August is still forming.

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Concerns about available space in school buildings, which may be needed to accommodate extra classrooms to comply with social distancing rules, the availability of staff to cover more classes and the support of children with home-learning, especially vulnerable children, were raised at a meeting of Stornoway Community Council this week.

Especially concerning to councillors was Stornoway Primary School’s lack of space to accommodate more classrooms, with questions over what would be done to resolve this issue.

Queries were raised over whether this could be resolved with temporary buildings on site and there was a suggestion of other buildings in town currently not in use being a possible solution.

BESPOKE SOLUTIONS FOR DIFFERENT LOCATIONS

Talking about the issues raised from that meeting a spokesman from the Comhairle was able to give a bit more detail to the Gazette.

He said: “The Comhairle is working hard with each of our schools to make sure we can have as many children and young people as possible attending school in August.

“With a diverse school estate, this will involve bespoke solutions at different locations.

“In terms of Stornoway Primary, the same criteria for attendance maximisation and physical distancing are being applied and we aim to be able to confirm plans for attendance at the school before the end of term, when all options have been explored and considered.”

In regards to extra staffing the council has been working with retired former teachers who are willing to support the service.

The spokesman described: “We are unable to confirm numbers at this time but welcome the return of retired teachers to support us at this challenging time. Also many retired teachers are on supply lists.”

The demands of home-learning and how children and their families have been supported in lockdown, especially vulnerable children, were also raised at the Stornoway Community Council meeting.

There were concerns that perhaps not all children have been able to access the online teaching materials available due to a lack of internet access, or even parents’ knowledge of systems.

HOME LEARNING

Talking about this aspect up until now and how it will be dealt with in regards to ongoing part-time at home learning from August, the spokesperson continued: “To-date, about 500 devices have been distributed to families to support online learning and such support includes providing connection devices for the internet, as well as actual tablets or computers.

“We do recognise, however, that some circumstances are beyond our gift to solve.

“The Schools IT service has and will continue to support technology issues wherever they can.”

He added: “ We can provide an assurance that, where a solution exists for technology issues, we will do all that we can to address it.

“The provision of devices is often easily achieved but providing or improving internet connections can be more challenging.

“Our service will continue to provide access to equipment and support.”

WHAT IS KNOWN ABOUT THE RETURN TO SCHOOL PLAN

The four-phase delivery plan started on June 8, with the return of some staff to schools to enable planning and the completion of risk assessments and hygiene systems.

Hubs for the children of key workers and vulnerable pupils – which have been open throughout the lock-down period – continued to operate along with home-learning activities for pupils.

Some pupils and early-years children, where it has been assessed as safe by the Comhairle for them to do so, have also been invited to schools to enable transition activities for those entering early years education or moving schools.

Phase two will begin on June 29th and covers the school summer holiday period.

At this time staff will maintain hub provision for eligible children and for vulnerable pupils ‘where it is deemed necessary for their well-being to attend’, but home learning activities for the majority of pupils will be suspended.

Then from August 10th onwards, under the third phase of the Comhairle’s delivery plan, pupils will return to school buildings, “in a safe and progressive manner that observes social distancing requirements”.

The plan revealed that school managers will work with trade unions and staff to review risk assessments, and this phase will involve a ‘blended’ approach of in-school and home learning which “balances direct live teaching and the completion of follow-up tasks”.

Phase four – with a time-scale yet to be confirmed – is intended to provide “a broad scoping of how services could develop as restrictions lessen.

Also set out in the plan is the availability of catering facilities and transport to school arrangements.

ANSWERED QUESTIONS IN AS MUCH DETAIL AS WE CAN

The Comhairle’s Director of Education, Bernard Chisholm, writing in a blog post, said: “This plan sets out how Western Isles schools, nurseries and childcare centres will progress through a carefully planned return to school buildings and services.

“It is organised into four phases that reflect the different stages of return to school and closely mirrors the national Covid-19 Route Map.

“The plan reflects current views of what should be expected during each phase but will be subject to change in timing, duration and content.

“As we progress through each phase of the plan, more accurate and detailed information will be able to be provided and this will be shared with parents in due course.

“This document provides answers to all the questions we’ve received in relation to planning for the reopening of schools. They are organised into broad headings and cover a range of popular topics.

“We have answered in as much detail as we can and appreciate that some of the information that parents and learners seek at the moment is not yet currently available, especially as we look to August and beyond.

“Information will continue to be updated throughout the summer as the date of return to school approaches.”

The full plan is available at this web-page: https://blogs.glowscotland.org.uk/es/dirinfo/phase-3-blended-learning-model/