Nicola Sturgeon pledged that all schools will be fully operational by August 18 at the latest as she faced calls for a more rigorous Covid testing regime for teachers.
The first minister set the deadline as she confirmed that schools would start going back full time from August 11, although pupils are to be advised against hugging or shaking hands.
In a Holyrood statement, the first minister said she expected “all pupils to be at school full-time from August 18 at the latest” following reports that fewer than half of Scotland’s councils have told parents they are preparing for a full school timetable.
But Ms Sturgeon warned the controversial blended learning model, which combines home schooling with limited time in the classroom, could be introduced in the future should there be a resurgence of the coronavirus.
Fears of a piecemeal return to school with local variations were raised in analysis conducted by former first minister Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale.
Lord McConnell, a former maths teacher, found only 13 of 32 councils mentioned a full timetable, some were still planning for blended learning and many said reopening would be delayed beyond August 11.
Ms Sturgeon acknowledged some local authorities may opt for a “phased return” over the first few days as she set the August 18 target for the return to full-time schooling.
Physical distancing will not be required while on the school estate but should be maintained “where possible” between secondary pupils, provided it does not compromise the full operation of schools.
According to guidance developed by the Scottish Government’s Education Recovery Group (ERG), “social physical contact” such as hand-to-hand greetings and hugs is to be discouraged.
But distancing should be maintained between members of staff and between teachers and pupils. Teachers are advised to wear face coverings when physical distancing of two metres can’t be maintained or they are face to face with a child for 15 minutes or more.
The ERG said schools will have to ensure there is satisfactory ventilation, good hygiene regimes and improved cleaning when they reopen for the first time since March.
An additional £30 million will be added to the £45m fund to recruit more teachers with the aim of attracting around 1,400 more members of staff.
A further £30m – on top of £20m already announced – will go into an education recovery fund for councils to support extra cleaning, facilities management and school transport.
Ms Sturgeon said an “enhanced surveillance” system would be established in schools as well as the Test and Protect system and there would also be fast access to testing for those exhibiting symptoms.
Call for routine testing for teachers
Green co-convener Patrick Harvie said he was a “bit disturbed” to hear from Education Secretary John Swinney earlier this week that the surveillance system may not be in place for the start of term.
Even footballers are being tested as often as four times a week… It would unacceptable if anyone said that teachers should feel less secure going to work than footballers, so why does the first minister believe it is not necessary to offer routine, regular testing to teachers and other school staff?”
Ms Sturgeon said some aspects would be in place at the outset but other parts, like testing of asymptomatic people on a sample basis, would only come into effect over the coming weeks.
Mr Harvie said he was concerned that “we are about to repeat the same experience” of the social care sector where it took a long time to persuade the Scottish Government to roll out routine testing.
“Even footballers are being tested as often as four times a week,” Mr Harvie said. “We all want to prevent new outbreaks, as happened recently in Israel, for example, where a major school outbreak happened just days after schools reopened. That would threaten our ability to keep schools open for the long term as well as putting people directly at risk. It would unacceptable if anyone said that teachers should feel less secure going to work than footballers, so why does the first minister believe it is not necessary to offer routine, regular testing to teachers and other school staff?”
Ms Sturgeon said testing issues in schools were taken “very seriously”, adding that the Test and Protect system would give those with symptoms access to tests “very quickly” and their contacts traced.
She said her advisers had looked at the situation in other countries and had concluded that, often, it was community transmission that drove outbreaks in schools rather than the other way round.
“The key thing we have to do to protect schools is to keep community transmission as low as possible,” Ms Sturgeon said.
She added that surveillance in schools would provide reassurance as the government developed a “suite of data” that would flag up emerging problems as well as sample testing.