Nicola Sturgeon is under growing pressure to toughen up rules for the use of face coverings in schools after confirming that a phased reopening of classrooms will begin from Monday.
Children in P1-3 and those at pre-school will return along with some secondary students who need to do practical work for qualifications.
Senior pupils will also need to stick to two-metre social distancing in class and on school buses, while lateral flow testing will be made available to them and their teachers.
Local authorities and campuses are to receive an additional £40m to help with the changes.
Nicola Sturgeon gives go-ahead for phased reopening of schools
This is part of a wider £100m support package announced by the First Minister.
Schools north of the Border are currently closed to most pupils in an effort to contain Covid-19, with only key worker and vulnerable children educated face to face. Others are taught online at home.
Ms Sturgeon yesterday told MSPs that the need to assess the impact of her new plan means it is unlikely there will be any further return to school before March 15.
“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,” she said.
But, amid continuing concern over the emergence of fast-spreading Covid variants, union leaders have hit out at what they say are gaps in the guidance on face coverings.
EIS General Secretary Larry Flanagan said: “Teachers remain concerned about the increased transmissibility of new Covid variants of the virus, especially aerosol transmission, and it is disappointing that the Scottish Government has not supported the introduction of medical grade face masks for staff, as they offer greater protection for wearers than simple face coverings.
“It should reconsider its stance as a matter of urgency. “We would also expect that staff with increased vulnerabilities will be advised to continue to work from home during this first phase.”
He added: “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 six per cent the test positivity rate in Scotland remains above the level that the World Health Organisation recommends as indicative of the virus being under control.
Most pupils in Scotland are learning remotely.
“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.”
Mr Flanagan also highlighted the importance of prioritising teachers and other school staff for vaccination.
Seamus Searson, General Secretary at the SSTA, said that an issue for his union was the lack of clear direction on the use of face coverings in secondaries.
“Our members are bothered by the fact that pupils won’t necessarily be wearing face coverings in school,” he said.
“We would like masks to be mandatory but if there’s a realisation of the risks associated with more transmissible strains of the virus, why doesn’t the Scottish Government at least go a bit further and say something like, ‘we would encourage people to wear masks in schools’?
Help for children catch up at school may last beyond summer holidays
“The other issue is what can schools do when youngsters refuse to wear a mask?
“We need clear support for schools so they can say that if a youngster is not going to follow the rules, we’re not going to accommodate them.”
Dr Patrick Roach, General Secretary of the NASUWT union, said: “In the face of the increased risks posed by new and more transmissible variants of the virus we believe a much more enhanced package of safety mitigations and measures is required to make schools Covid safe, details of which we have already set out to ministers.
“This includes a system of stronger controls, including the enhanced use of face coverings in schools by senior phase pupils and adults in all settings, the optional use of face coverings by pupils in primary schools and the use of rotas or other measures to limit occupancy levels, provide enhanced physical distancing and prevent overcrowding.”
The First Minister also announced that all teachers and lecturers involved in awarding national qualifications this year would receive a one-off payment of £400.
This will be paid to part-time teachers on a pro rata basis, while two days will be set aside for staff to work on assessments.
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But Mr Searson said: “Who is the £400 for? Is it for teachers in the classroom or staff involved in the quality assurance process?
“Our concern is that £400 won’t be enough given the extra workload and it will only cause division in schools if some get it and others don’t.”