SCOTLAND’S state schools and nurseries are to close from Monday and may not reopen until the autumn because of coronavirus, Nicola Sturgeon has said.

The First Minister said her planning assumption was that schools would close at the end of this week, and she could not promise they would reopen before the summer holidays.

She said the "very difficult" decision would change society and the economy.

However it had been driven by updated scientific advice and the reality on the ground.

Many parents have already withdrawn pupils on their own initiative, and some teaching staff have started self-isolating because of symptoms in their households.

HeraldScotland:

There are around 700,000 pupils in Scotland - around 400,000 in primaries, 290,000 in secondaries and 7000 in special schools.

The Scottish Government said it was workign closely with councils to mitigate the impact on three priority groups: 

Vulnerable pupils and those receiving free school meals

Pupils undertaking coursework and preparing for exams

Key workers including doctors, nurses and emergency service workers who have children

At a Scottish Government briefing on the pandemic, Ms Sturgeon said: "My view is that it is now inevitable that we will close schools and nurseries. My planning assumption now is that schools will close to pupils at the end of this week.

“As people do the right thing and follow the advice to self-isolate or to isolate as households, more and more schools are approaching a point where they have lost too many staff to continue as normal.

“We are working closely with schools. Tomorrow the Deputy First Minister (John Swinney) will set out in a statement to parliament, the arrangements we are putting in place.”

She added: “He will address key questions I know parents, pupils and teachers will have including what this will mean for vulnerable pupils who are receiving free school meals.

“We must not cut adrift vulnerable children.”

Ms Sturgeon was speaking after confirming a third death from coronavirus and a rise in the number of known positive cases from 195 to 227.

However chief medical officer Dr Catherine Calderwood said the 227 figure was likely to be a significant underestimate.

Ms Sturgeon said the priority was to minimise the impact on young people’s education and lives, but did not rule out pupils having to repeat an entire academic year.

READ MORE: Top doctor warns closing schools puts health of elderly in 'jeopardy'

She said the present focus was on pupils who had been due to sit exams.

The First Minister indicated that Mr Swinney will explain the situation of this year’s exams when he addresses MSPs tomorrow.

She added: “We must ensure that our doctors, nurses and other critical staff can still work. Lives are on the line.

“We are still working out all of the final details of what exactly this will mean. There will doubtless require to be a lot of local flexibility required. Planning with councils is likely to go on well into next week.

“In some areas, private nurseries and childminders can play a massive role in helping key workers to go in.”

Ms Sturgeon also addressed teaching staff directly.

She said: “We know you will step up to help because we know how committed you are to the children you teach and those that you care for.

“There will be a vital role for teachers and all school and nursery staff in the weeks ahead.”

The First Minister addressed how long schools are likely to remain closed.

She said: “The clearest guidance I can give now is that people should not assume that schools and nurseries will reopen after the Easter break.

“We will of course only keep them closed for as long as we absolutely have to. At this stage I cannot promise that they will reopen before the summer holidays.”

Ms Sturgeon added: “This has been one of the hardest decisions we have faced so far as we tackle this virus.

“We know that this will massively disrupt life, society and the economy.

“We know that it massively changes family life and nothing is more precious than that. But that indeed is the measure of how serious this virus is and how serious the challenge is that we face.

Shadow education secretary Jamie Greene has said the Scottish Conservatives will work constructively with both the UK and Scottish governments in rleation to school clsoures.

He said: "This is an unprecedented move which was unfortunately inevitable as each of the UK’s devolved governments take advice relevant to their own circumstances.

"This will undoubtedly be of huge concern to parents who rely on their children attending school to allow them to go to work as well as those facing imminent exams."  

He added: "Given those challenges, it is vital that we put normal politics aside to support these decisions and work together on practical solutions to minimise the disruptive consequences of them.  

“There remain questions over how key workers in emergence services will be supported with childcare but we will support both the UK and Scottish government as they take these very difficult decisions.”

Scottish Labour Leader Richard Leonard said: “The closure of schools and nurseries now appears necessary and support to ensure key workers can continue to work is now a priority.

“We are in unprecedented times and the effort of staff across all of our public services to protect individuals, families and communities in this time of crisis cannot be underestimated.

READ MORE: Coronavirus LIVE: Third Scottish death as confirmed cases jumps to 227

“This is a fast moving situation and we will only get through this by working together.”

The Scottish Greens have askes for assurance that free school meals will continue after schools and nurseries are closed.

Scottish Green education spokesperson Ross Greer has written to Mr Swinney, urging continuity measures be put in place to ensure those who rely on schools for meals do not miss out as a result of the closures.

Mr Greer said: “Closing schools has become unavoidable and we should welcome what would have been a difficult but necessary decision for the government.

"Our focus must now move to managing the impact this will have on children and young people, particularly those who are already vulnerable."

He added: "That means making sure those who rely on school for meals and security are offered urgent support.

"Scotland has the capacity to provide food to those who need it. Now we need to ensure families who depend on the support of breakfast clubs or free school lunches are not pushed into extreme difficulties by these closures.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said: “I fully support the First Minister’s decision to close schools and nurseries by the end of the week as it is right to follow the scientific advice.

“Yet many parents will now be anxious about how to balance childcare and any remaining work commitments."

He added: “We should ensure vulnerable pupils who rely on free school meals continue to have access to them. 

“We need to create exceptional care provision for the children of emergency service and other critical workers who don't have a support network. There is precedent for this already in Belgium, the Netherlands, Finland and Norway.” 

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of Scotland's largest teaching union, the EIS, welcomed the clarity in the announcement.

He said: "The First Minister highlighted the need for arrangements to be put in place, potentially involving teachers, to deal with: pupils in receipt of free school meals; pupils taking SQA exams; and pupils of parents who are critical workers (NHS and emergency services).

"As there will be flexibility about local approaches to these issues, planning by individual Councils will now take place, potentially moving into next week.

"Ms Sturgeon added that no one should expect schools to automatically open after Easter – stressing that they will be closed for as long as they have to be, potentially through until the summer. 

"The EIS welcomes this announcement and will seek to engage both nationally and locally about appropriate working arrangements, including addressing the areas raised by the FM."