BLENDED learning is set to become the new norm in Scottish education as lockdown eases. The challenges involved in this will make 12 weeks of lockdown “pale into relative insignificance”, according to Larry Flanagan, leader of teachers’ union, the EIS.

At the moment the expectation is that schools in Scotland will re-open in August after the usual summer break but how they look will be very different to previous years as social-distancing measures are still likely to be in place.

This will mean the number of pupils in classrooms could be reduced by more than half so that they can be two metres apart. It is expected pupils will have to take turns using classrooms. When they are not at school they will be learning remotely at home.

However Flanagan said it would be “impossible” for teachers to return to work and be confident they were in a safe environment until the Scottish Government had the capacity to test, trace and isolate and that the R-number – the rate of infection of Covid-19 – was under control.

“Given those two bigger issues the school buildings will have to comply with all the public health advice and the most significant one in that it creates the biggest challenge is physical distancing,” Flanagan told the Sunday National. “Maintaining a two-metre separation has the immediate consequence of reducing class sizes quite dramatically.”

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He said a normal classroom of around 30 pupils would be reduced to around eight, nine or 10, depending on how the room was configured.

“It’s going to be much less than 50% because most classrooms don’t have a lot of space.”

This would result in a “very different” way of working and learning, according to Flanagan.

“It means students going back full-time are going to have blended learning – a mixture of school teaching and remote learning. It’s really quite a dramatic change,” he said.

“The impact of 12 weeks of lockdown will pale into relative insignificance compared with a year of blended learning as this will almost certainly be in place until there is a vaccine. Scotland’s classrooms are very dynamic but a lot of that won’t happen because of physical distancing. Group work, for example, will become a challenge if that has to be socially distanced.”

He said there would be a need for additional staff resources to help teachers cope and there would be a number of teachers who would potentially either still be shielding or at risk themselves because of underlying health problems.

“Lot of teachers also have school-age kids but how can they be a teacher at school if their kids are at home? Entering lockdown was probably the least of the challenges. There’s a lot to be worked out.”

One of the issues will be to make sure remote learning is effective and reaches everyone as the lockdown has already revealed swathes of “digital poverty” in some areas where pupils do not have an adequate digital connection or access to the necessary technology.

There will also have to be changes in the way students move around buildings.

Flanagan pointed to the example of Denmark where primary school children are taken to wash their hands every hour. “That’s a fairly big task just in terms of managing it physically,” he said.

Cleaning may also have to be stepped up, particularly if pupils attend school in batches.

“If one group of kids are coming in during the morning and one is coming in the afternoon there will have to be a clean in between. Younger kids maybe play with communal classroom toys and those will have to be cleaned so there are a lot of big issues.”

In secondary schools, teachers rather than pupils may have to move classrooms at the end of each period although this will not work for specialised subjects like chemistry, Flannigan pointed out.

“There are also big problems with practical lessons – how can you be two metres away from kids using heavy machinery for the first time?

“In drama a big element is assessment for performance. Some can be individual but a lot of it is about being part of a group on stage so there are practical challenges around how you manage that.”

For younger children the challenge is helping them to understand physical distancing.

Flanagan said one answer to this could be to create “social bubbles” so that groups were kept separate from other groups.

Joanna Murphy, chair of the National Parent Forum Scotland, said there was a strong consensus among parents that August was “far enough away for the situation to have settled down considerably”.

Referring to the row down south about the UK Government’s aim to restart schools in June, she said the fact that schools broke up earlier in Scotland for the summer break meant a restart did not have to be rushed.

However children transitioning from nursery to primary one and from primary to secondary school could also be introduced to school before the summer holidays, she argued.

There was also a need for businesses to be flexible with parents of school-age children struggling for child care.

Murphy agreed with Flanagan that classrooms were going to look very different when schools do re-open. “There will be nothing normal about it. There will have to be some adjustment because you probably won’t get whole classes in at one time. Realistically it will be staggered and pupils will maybe go in for days at a time rather than a morning or afternoon.”

Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, stressed that comprehensive risk assessment measures would have to take place prior to schools re-opening.

Children’s Minister Maree Todd said outdoor learning could play a crucial part in the “new normal”.

“This model of childcare could have many benefits for maintaining physical distancing and minimising risk of transmission as part of the transition from lockdown back into early learning and childcare and school,” she said.