Scotland could accelerate its exit from coronavirus lockdown restrictions, Nicola Sturgeon has said, as she announced pupils will return to school before Easter on either a part or full-time basis.
With P1 to P3 youngsters already back in the classroom, the Scottish Government had previously indicated that rest of children in primary schools would be able to join them from March 15.
Many secondary school students, however, were not due to return until after the Easter break – although a very small number have been able to go back if they need to do practical work as part of qualifications.
However, Ms Sturgeon told MSPs she now expected that “all children in secondary school will receive some in-school education each week” before Easter, and would be back full-time after that.
The phased return to the classrooms is in contrast to the situation in England, where all youngsters are due back in school from Monday.
And Ms Sturgeon said while her gradual approach may be “frustrating”, it was in line with expert advice.
The First Minister insisted: “It is the best, and also the most sustainable and enduring, way to get as many children back to school as possible, as safely as possible.”
The Tories claimed the credit for “this latest SNP U-turn”, with Scottish Conservative Holyrood leader Ruth Davidson saying it was made after pressure from her party.
But Ms Davidson said the move would be “be welcomed by pupils, parents and teachers who know there is no substitute for learning in a classroom”.
When youngsters return to secondary school, they will “at least until Easter” need to continue to stick to two-metre physical distancing, with face coverings “to be worn at all times”.
All school staff, as well as youngsters in S4 to S6, will also be able to get twice-weekly lateral flow testing for Covid-19 – with Ms Sturgeon urging “as many staff and senior phase pupils as possible to use the tests when they return”.
Councillor Stephen McCabe, children and young people’s spokesman for the local authority body, Cosla, said the need to ensure social distancing in secondary schools meant that “the amount of in-school time will vary between local authorities”.
But he stated: “If the clinical and scientific advice states that it is safe to take this approach, local authorities will endeavour to make sure that all children and young people get some form of in-school time, being particularly mindful that we need to take the safety of school staff extremely seriously.”
The announcement on the return of schools came as Scotland recorded a further 542 coronavirus cases, as well as 33 more deaths.
The First Minister added that there were an average of 657 cases of the virus being reported each day – the lowest number since the start of October.
In light of the recent “much more encouraging” figures, the First Minister said the Scottish Government “will be considering if it might be possible to accelerate the exit from lockdown in any way”.
Ms Sturgeon said: “When I update Parliament next week, I hope to be able to confirm some changes to Scotland’s level 4 restrictions.”
Any acceleration in the easing of restrictions would still have to be done with “the care and caution we know is necessary”, the First Minister stressed.
But she stated: “I have always said if we can go further and faster, then we will not hesitate to do so.
“All of us want to move on as quickly as possible and, as a priority, to see friends and family again. I hope that day is now not too far away.”
Meanwhile, Ms Sturgeon revealed guidelines on when it is possible to visit someone else in their home are now being amended, to make it clear that the “essential purposes” for these can include “support for the welfare and wellbeing of a parent of a child who is under the age of one”.
The First Minister said she hoped this move would give “clarity” and also help provide “vital support for parents of very young children”.