A teachers union has called for a rethink on back to school plans after the First Minister announced a phased return for pupils next week.
Concerns have been raised by the Aberdeen branch of EIS over the move, which will see early learning and younger primary school children going back full-time from Monday.
Senior pupils who need to attend practical classes for exam purposes will also be allowed back to the classroom.
Aberdeen City branch secretary Ron Constable said: “Our primary school members for P1-P3 as well as our secondary school members will have concerns around their safety, particularly as there are now these more transmittable variants when the previous variant was already highly transmissible.
“When we heard of the phased return, we didn’t see it as the whole of P1-P3 returning at once, we saw it along the lines of a blended learning model, half the class in which would allow the children to social distance.
“I think definitely our P1-P3 members will be worried about increased transmission of the virus, especially aerosol transmission.
“If you look at secondary schools, only 5-8% of pupils will be in at once but there’s still the kids of key workers and vulnerable children too that will be in. It should only be children who are involved in practical subjects.
“It’s not an invitation to start returning, it should only be kids who need to be in for technical subjects or art or drama who need to coming up with a piece that should be in.”
Ron went on to say: “The Scottish Government keeps banging on about having schools back, but it won’t help our members if there are increases in community transmission. They say they are cautious about reintroducing schools and we can’t have people hanging out at the gates, but our members are being put in the position where significant concerns about their safety are being raised.
“We urge the Scottish Government to rethink this issue, we can go to blended learning such as was proposed last year after the last big lockdown.
He added: “We’re opening again too quickly.”
Councils have been working on plans for returning children to schools and are confident that all necessary measures are in place for young people to attend safely.
Councillor John Wheeler, Aberdeen City Council’s education operational delivery committee convener, said: “We have been working with colleagues in schools in anticipation of the Scottish Government’s announcement today to ensure that we are well placed on Monday to welcome back our P1-P3 and early learning pupils to our schools, in keeping with national guidelines.”
Councillor Gillian Owen, Aberdeenshire Council’s education and children’s services committee chairwoman said: “I would like to thank parents and carers throughout Aberdeenshire who have been assisting with their children and young people’s learning whilst education has been carried out at home online. I would also like to pay tribute to our educational psychologists who provided support to parents and carers during this time.
“I am sure the First Minister’s announcement will be great news for everyone who can return to school next week. For those continuing to learn virtually from home, your patience is greatly appreciated.
“We all have a duty to stick to the rules so that all children and young people in Aberdeenshire and across the country can return to school as soon as possible. Thank you very much for your support.”
Aberdeenshire Council’s director of education and children’s services Laurence Findlay added: “We have been making preliminary arrangements for the return to education in anticipation of the update to the Scottish Parliament and look forward to welcoming our younger pupils, those who require additional support, and some of our senior phase pupils back to school from Monday.
“Schools will be contacting the families of pupils in these categories over the next few days and we would like to thank all parents, carers and staff for their understanding and support ahead of this announcement.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “In terms of the order in which we exit lockdown, the Scottish Government has always made clear that education should be the priority. I can confirm today that, in line with the advice of our expert group, this first phase of the reopening of schools will go ahead as planned on Monday.
“We will need to monitor the impact of this change very carefully before taking any further decisions. However, I hope we will be able to set out the second phase of school reopening in two weeks’ time. I want to be clear, though, that the need to properly assess the impact of this limited reopening means we do not envisage, at this stage, any further return to school before 15 March.
“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. We are also publishing today updated school safety guidance, developed with the Education Recovery Group. This sets out a range of additional safety mitigations.
“And to help implement them, we will be providing local authorities and schools with an additional £40 million, as part of a wider £100 million package to accelerate school recovery. The Finance Secretary will confirm details. The success of this limited reopening, and the prospect of getting more pupils back later in March, very much depends on all of us continuing to abide by the wider restrictions.
“So, for now – and I really cannot emphasise this point strongly enough – please treat Monday’s important milestone as a return to education for children only, and not as a return to greater normality for the rest of us.”
Scottish Conservative MSP for Aberdeenshire West, Alexander Burnett, welcomed the move, however called for further support to be given to young people.
He said: “The reopening of schools on Monday is a step in the right direction for children, teachers and parents across the north-east.
“However despite teachers’ valiant efforts to keep education on track, pupils have missed vital class time which is why the SNP Government must introduce a schools catch-up plan to stop the attainment gap from growing.
“We are calling on more teachers and a national tutoring service to be rolled out and this has to happen to avoid creating a lost generation.
“Remote education has been poor and patchy and the Scottish Government must ensure there isn’t a repeat of this lack of planning as schools reopen.”
Aberdeen Central MSP Kevin Stewart added: “Children’s education has been the absolute priority of the Scottish Government throughout the course of the pandemic and it’s imperative that we get this absolutely right while keeping everybody as safe as possible.
“The vaccine roll-out has gone very well and I know this is welcome news for pupils and families alike as the phased return of schools will progress as planned on Monday.
“However, we need time to properly assess the impact of that limited re-opening and so we have to move forward with caution – this is the right thing to do by pupils, staff and the wider Scottish population.”
Meanwhile, the first minister told MSPs her government is working on a “revised strategic framework” to be published next Tuesday that will “set out in much more detail when and how we might gradually emerge from lockdown”.
However, she said restrictions will remain in place across Scotland until at least early March “and possibly for a period beyond that”.
Ms Sturgeon gave only limited details of what the route ahead could look like but warned her government is “likely to advise against booking Easter holidays, either overseas or within Scotland”.
She said it was “highly unlikely” hotels or self-catering accommodation will be open over the next few months and said it was also unlikely overseas holidays would be possible in the summer but staycations could be possibility.
Adrian Watson CEO, Aberdeen Inspired, said a “commitment” to support city centre recovery in the long term was needed.
He said: “We all understand the need for public health to take primacy in such decisions, but that a road map is desperately needed for our retail and hospitality businesses, that will at least give them some indication of when they can start trading.
“Of course, there needs to be continued economic support to all affected businesses during this lockdown period, coupled with a strong and explicit commitment nationally to support our city centres recovery across the country in the months and years that lie ahead.”