Schools will remain closed for most pupils until at least the middle of February, but it remains a “priority” to reopen them as soon as possible, Nicola Sturgeon has announced.
The First Minister also said the government was looking to introduce routine coronavirus testing for both pupils and teachers when schools resume.
Updating parliament on the latest coronavirus measure, Ms Sturgeon said the earliest date schools could possibly open for pupils who are not vulnerable or children of key workers was being pushed back to at least mid-February.
“Our reluctant judgment is that community transmission of the virus is too high – and is likely to remain so for the next period – to allow a safe return to school on February 1,” she said.
Ms Sturgeon told MSPs that the government would review when schools could safely reopen for all pupils on February 2 when she hopes to set out a “firmer timetable for getting children back into school”.
She said: “It is of course a priority for all of us to get children back to normal schooling as soon as possible.
“I know how much work teachers, school leaders and other staff are doing to support home learning and I am very grateful to them for that.
“But I also know just how challenging and stressful this situation is for families.
“And above all, I understand how difficult, distressing and damaging it is for children and young people to have their education and their normal interactions with friends so disrupted.”
Ms Sturgeon added: “I can say this today: if it is at all possible, as I very much hope it will be, to begin even a phased return to in-school learning in mid-February, we will.
“But I also have to be straight with families and say that it is simply too early to be sure about whether and to what extent this will be possible.”
In response to a question from Scottish Greens’ co-leader Patrick Harvie about schools reopening safely, she said the government were trialling both at-home PCR testing and in-school lateral flow testing for pupils and school staff.
General secretary of the EIS teaching union, Larry Flanagan welcomed the announcement and said reducing the levels of coronavirus transmission was a “prerequisite” for schools reopening.
He added: “While home learning brings many challenges for pupils, parents and teachers, the indications are that the vast majority of students are engaging positively via remote learning with appropriate support from teachers, parents and carers.
“The EIS would call, however, for the rapid employment of supply teachers currently seeking work to provide additional support to those pupils struggling to engage with remote learning.”
The Scottish Government also faced calls to reopen all special schools to help children with complex physical and mental needs.
Sophie Pilgrim, the director of Kindred – a charity for children with special needs – expressed concern about the “degenerating” physical and mental health because of school closures.
She said: “Special schools have a vital role to play, providing respite from care for parents, as well as therapy, education and social engagement for our most vulnerable children.
“Without these reopening we will pay a heavy price as a society.
“We would urge that Scotland follows the lead shown by England, Wales and Northern Ireland and we re-open our special schools to full time placements for those who want to return.”
Kenny Graham from the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition described the opening of special schools as “patchwork” and added: “Many of those we are supporting are finding the current situation incredibly challenging, with greatly increased social exclusion through being at home.
“The loss of routine has proven extremely difficult for many, impacting in many cased on both the children and their parents.
“It is vital for those who want to, that they have the opportunity to return to school and have full access to the care and support they feel they need.”