Scotland’s education secretary has urged school pupils to test at home for coronavirus before heading back to the classroom this week.
Shirley-Anne Somerville told secondary school students to take a lateral flow test either the night before lessons start back or on the morning of their return.
With youngsters aged 12 to 15 years old now eligible for their second doses of coronavirus vaccine, pupils in this age group are also being encouraged to come forward for their jabs.
Chief medical officer Professor Sir Gregor Smith stressed with the new Omicron variant of the virus spreading rapidly it is “vital that we all do what we can to limit its transmission”.
Somerville said: “It is our absolute priority to keep schools safely open and minimise further disruption to learning.
“To achieve that, we need the help of the whole school community.”
She said that taking lateral flow tests before returning to school, and then continuing to test twice a week, could help prevent Covid outbreaks.
The education secretary added: “Safety guidance for schools was updated in December in light of Omicron and it is crucial that all the mitigations are strictly followed.
“These include physical distancing, one-way systems and the correct use of face coverings.
“By testing regularly and following the mitigations, pupils and staff can all play their part in keeping themselves, their families and their schools safe.”
The chief medical officer said: “Rapid lateral flow testing helps us to find infectious cases that might otherwise have been missed, as around one in three people with Covid-19 does not show classic symptoms.
“That’s why it is really important that secondary pupils and school and early learning and childcare staff take lateral flow tests before they return to classes and settings after the break, and that they keep testing regularly throughout term.”
He continued: “Pupils and staff who are eligible for vaccination should get their jags, and, where appropriate, boosters as soon as they can to receive greater protection from the virus.
“Those aged 12 to 15 are being offered second doses of the vaccine from this week and I would urge them to take up the offer.
“Drop-in sessions will be available for this age group from today while those who have already been given a date for their second jag can call a helpline to bring their appointment forward and get protection from the virus earlier.”
Sir Gregor and Somerville made their appeals as a teaching union warned the rapid rise in Covid-19 cases could cause “significant disruption” to schools unless “immediate action” is taken by the Scottish Government.
The NASUWT union insisted a range of measures are needed to help combat surging infection levels resulting from the Omicron variant.
Ministers are being urged to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission in the classroom by funding air-cleaning units for every school and college that needs such devices.
The union is also calling for schools to get more resources for on-site coronavirus testing and additional cash to help both schools and colleges cover the costs of supply staff to cover for Covid-related absences.
It comes as Scotland has reported record levels of coronavirus cases over the festive break.
NASUWT general secretary Patrick Roach said: “The rising number of cases of the Omicron variant could cause significant disruption in the next academic term with many teachers being forced to self-isolate.
“The Scottish Government must take immediate action to ensure that schools can continue to operate safely and provide high-quality education.”
Mike Corbett, NASUWT national official for Scotland, said: “The Scottish Government must do everything it can to prevent schools from experiencing significant staffing problems next term and further damage to the education of children and young people.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Teachers have been outstanding throughout the pandemic and we can’t thank them enough. The safety and wellbeing of pupils, teachers and school staff is our top priority.
“Our updated guidance on reducing Covid risks in schools is informed by expert advice and the views of those on the Covid Education Recovery Group, which includes teachers’ representatives.
“We know this is a concerning time and we will continue to closely monitor the situation and keep the schools safety guidance under regular review, while focusing on minimising further disruption to learning.
“Our guidance for return to school includes a number of enhanced protections, including approaches to CO2 monitoring and ensuring good levels of ventilation are maintained, backed by £10 million of additional funding to local authorities to complete initial CO2 assessments of all learning, teaching and play spaces in their schools.”
Scottish Labour education spokesman Michael Marra said: “A culture of testing for pupils must be built, incentivised and parents have to be encouraged to ensure compliance.
“Staff are already warning that there could be significant disruption caused by self-isolation rates soaring.
“The pandemic has been devastating for our schools, disrupting learning and entrenching Scotland’s scandalous attainment gap.
“The SNP urgently need to make schools safer but they are falling badly short.”