Secondary school pupils in Scotland will continue to wear face coverings in class, according to new guidance from the Scottish Government.
A more cautious approach is being taken on the advice of clinicians including the chief medical officer, Dr Gregor Smith, to provide ample time for 12- to 15-year-olds to take up the first dose of vaccination.
A sharp fall in cases across the country has slowed, with figures rarely dropping below 2,000 per day in the past three weeks.
Face coverings in communal areas for secondary pupils and staff, as well as primary staff, will also continue.
The new guidance is contrary to reports last week that the need for face coverings would be dropped when pupils return from the October break.
But Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville has said the restrictions will be lifted “at the earliest possible time”.
“In recent weeks we have seen the previous sharp decline in Covid-19 case numbers starting to level off, and that is why we have decided to adopt a cautious approach and maintain safety mitigations in school for the time being,” she said.
“Progress with vaccinating 12- to 15-year-olds has been remarkable and is already over 40%.
“However, this was only rolled out a few weeks ago and allowing further time will mean that encouraging figure rises even higher.
“This decision is based on advice from senior clinicians and takes account of the most recent data.
“We will continue to monitor case rates on a weekly basis, with a view to lifting restrictions at the earliest possible time.”
Ms Somerville added: “While I fully understand that this will be disappointing news for some young people and their parents, as has been the situation throughout the safety of children, young people, and all education staff remains the overriding priority.
“There is no room for complacency and we must all continue to remain vigilant to reduce the spread of Covid-19.”
Teachers’ leaders welcomed the move. Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS union, said they had “argued for great caution in any easing of school mitigations, especially in light of continuing high levels of infection and the incomplete rollout of vaccinations for pupils”.
Mr Flanagan added: “The priority is to keep schools open but as safe as possible, so this delay from the Scottish Government, with regard to easing mitigations, is welcome and will allow, also, more time for ventilation challenges to be met ahead of winter.”
But the Scottish Conservative education spokesman, Oliver Mundell, said the continued requirement for face coverings “will come as a massive disappointment to pupils and parents, given the SNP strongly indicated that masks in classrooms would end after the October break”.
The Tory MSP said: “Scotland’s schools should have been a priority for the SNP but with face masks in classrooms remaining, young people have once again been sent to the back of the queue.”
With an “incredible uptake” for the coronavirus vaccine among 12- to 15-year-olds in Scotland, he said that “pupils, parents and teachers need to see a plan from the SNP for a return to normal learning as soon as possible”.
The news comes as Scotland recorded 24 further deaths of patients with coronavirus and 2,459 new infections, according to the latest figures.
The latest coronavirus statistics published on Tuesday showed an increase of 265 cases compared with Monday’s figure, although it is the second-lowest figure in the past week.
Infected patients in hospitals rose by 12 to 869 and the number in intensive care increased by two to 46.
The number of vaccinations carried out on Monday was 4,333 – made up of 2,531 first doses and 1,802 second doses – taking the total number of people with one and two vaccinations to 3,881,744 and 4,291,650 respectively.
It is the lowest daily number of vaccinations carried out for almost a month, since September 24 when 3,976 jabs were administered.