Shirley-Anne Somerville, the Education Secretary has made clear the “absolute priority” to keep schools open amid soaring coronavirus cases as she urged pupils to test at home for the virus before heading back to classes.
With schools across Scotland returning this week, Ms Somerville also urged secondary school students to take a lateral flow test either the night before lessons start back or on the
morning of their return.
It comes as the NASUWT teacher's union claimed its members want immediate action to avoid further disruption.
Ms 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. Taking lateral flow tests before returning to school, and continuing to test regularly will help prevent outbreaks of the virus.
“We are grateful to schools for their continued efforts to stress the importance of asymptomatic testing.
“Parents of secondary pupils can also help by encouraging their children to make testing part of their weekly routine – and, importantly, to report all results online, whether positive, negative or void.
“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.”
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”.
He 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 Ms 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.
Face masks are also now to be worn in classrooms in England's secondary schools, bringing them in line with the rest of the UK.
The UK Government announced the measure to help reduce the spread of the Omicron variant, and help schools remain open for face-to-face learning this coming term.
Teachers will not have to wear them under the new guidelines.
Some individual schools had already required masks in classrooms in England, and face coverings were recommended in schools in England between March 8 and May 17 last year.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi explained face coverings would be required until January 26, which is when the current national Plan B Covid measures run out.
Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said he would rather have masks worn in classrooms than children out of school.
Asked about the Government’s decision to ask older students to wear face coverings in class again, he told Sky News: “I think in terms of schools, if the choice is between having masks at schools or children missing schools in huge numbers, of course we want to keep pupils learning. That’s got to be the priority.
“I think there are two things, though, that the Government can and should be doing. The first is on testing. Pupils should be testing twice a week. There’s lots of evidence to suggest that hasn’t been happening properly.
“So the message for Government is get the tests in place, make sure pupils are able to test twice a week.”
The NASUWT union has 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.”
The four main teaching unions covering England, Wales and Northern Ireland - ASCL, NAHT, NEU and NASUWT, as well as the GMB and Unison have also ssued a joint statement calling for urgent steps to help schools.
They warned it was vital to avoid exam disruption for a third successive year, and remove uncertainty and extra work.
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.”