Some of Scotland’s pupils will resume face-to-face teaching from next Monday as part of a phased return to school.
Primaries one, two and three will return to class full-time from February 22, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told Parliament.
Nursery children are also set to go back on that date, along with some senior pupils facing assessments in S4-S6 on a part-time basis.
The First Minister said: “This first phase of the reopening of schools will go ahead as planned on Monday.
“I want to be clear, though, that the need to properly assess the impact of this limited reopening means we think it unlikely, at this stage, that there will be any further return to school before 15 March.
“As we consider these issues, we are of course doing everything we can to ensure that schools are as safe as possible for children, and for the education workforce.”
The First Minister also said at-home lateral flow tests will be made available to senior phase pupils, teachers and school staff twice a week as part of a wider package of in-school mitigations
She said: “Senior secondary pupils will be required to observe two-metre physical distancing while in school and on school transport in the period immediately after the return and we are also publishing today updated school safety guidance developed with the Education Recovery Group – this sets out a range of additional safety mitigations and to help implement them we will be providing local authorities and schools with an additional £40m as part of a wider £100m package to accelerate school recovery.”
Sturgeon appealed to employers to continue allowing employees to work from home even if their children are back at school, and urged parents not to socialise at school gates for fear of spreading coronavirus.
Speaking to MSPs in Holyrood, she said the return to schools for some pupils from Monday must only be treated as “a return to education for children only, and not as a return to greater normality for the rest of us”.
She said: “If we all do that, then I am hopeful that this return to school will be consistent with our continued progress in suppressing the virus.
“And if that does prove to be the case, I am optimistic that we will soon be able to set out the next phase in the journey back to school for young people.”
Almost all pupils have been learning at home since the Christmas holidays under the current lockdown restrictions.
Only the children of key workers have been able to go to school, while this year’s exams have been cancelled for older pupils.
Other lockdown rules, such as the stay at home law, will remain in place until at least the beginning of March and possibly longer.
Sturgeon said: “If we open up too quickly to meet arbitrary dates we do risk setting our progress back.
“Indeed, because of the new, more-infectious variant, our exit from lockdown is likely to be even more cautious than it was last summer.”
Scottish Conservative Holyrood leader Ruth Davidson said it is “very welcome news that schools will soon be able to start opening again safely in the near future”, adding that it “is important to get all key workers vaccinated as early as we can, while respecting the JCVI recommendations”.
She said: “We asked the First Minister for answers on behalf of key workers, including teachers, who want to know when they will get the vaccine for both their own health and their close contacts.
“The response was short on detail and didn’t clear anything up. We need answers to be outlined soon for the key workers keeping our schools and public services running safely.”
The Scottish Greens echoed those sentiments, saying teachers should be prioritiesed in the next vaccination phase.
Scottish Greens parliamentary co-leader Alison Johnstone said: “While the return to school will be good for our young people’s education and wellbeing, it must be as safe as possible.
“That means ensuring that schools are well ventilated and not overcrowded if safe distancing cannot be maintained. Vitally, if schools are to be the first things to return to normal then it stands to reason teachers and other school staff should be prioritised in the next vaccinations phase after clinical needs are met.”
The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), the country’s largest union for teachers and lecturers, said significant concerns over school safety remain to be addressed.
EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan said, “Everyone is supportive of face-to-face teaching returning as soon as possible – that should not override safety concerns, however, and teachers will be understandably nervous around today’s announcement.
“Community infection levels have fallen but still remain high in areas such as North Lanarkshire and at 6% the test positivity rate in Scotland remains above the level that the World Health Organisation recommends as indicative of the virus being under control.
“Against this backdrop, the EIS continues to believe that a blended learning model, with around half of pupils in classes at any one time to allow for physical distancing, would have provided a more cautious and more appropriate basis for pupils returning to schools.”
Meanwhile, parent group UsForThem Scotland said that while Tuesday’s announcement was partially welcome, it would be of no consolation to parents of older pupils.
Organiser Jo Bisset said: “Now that the green light has been given to the first tranche, we hope the Scottish Government will urgently set out a road map for all other pupils to go back.
“Online learning doesn’t work and blended learning is a farce. Without a full return to normal school, an enormous amount of damage will be done to tens of thousands of Scottish children.
“We appreciate these aren’t easy decisions for the First Minister to make, but we ask her to consider the balance of harm. Every week that goes by in isolation for young people is causing more damage now and storing up significant trouble for the future.”