NICOLA Sturgeon has indicated that there will be “a big role for testing” to reassure teachers it is safe to return to work when schools in Scotland re-open full time in August.

The Scottish Government announced yesterday that if success in suppressing the Covid-19 continue, pupils will be welcomed back full time from August 11 – after parents vented their anger over blended learning plans.

But union leaders have warned the Scottish Government’s U-turn has “sparked considerable debate, anxiety, frustration, confusion and even anger amongst many members”.

Nicola Sturgeon has stressed that the blended learning plans, where pupils would spend part of their time in classrooms and the rest at home with remote learning, remain a “contingency” in case the virus is not sufficiently suppressed.

In a letter to teachers, Larry Flanagan, the general secretary of the EIS union, has warned that the change of heart from Education Secretary John Swinney to set a course for full-time schooling “was a political announcement” and “not an agreed outcome” from the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 education recovery group.

He said: “The EIS is not convinced that no physical distancing between pupils is safe and we are absolutely certain that physical distancing between pupils and teachers remains essential.

“It may be that the actual distance, come August, will have been reduced from the current two metres if the level of infection has dropped further, but there cannot be a social distancing rule for outside of schools and a different one for inside classrooms.”

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He added: “The EIS has raised the possibility of proactive testing for teachers, on a voluntary basis, as a further mitigation which should be looked at, in the way that it is for frontline NHS staff and care home workers. It does not prevent infection, but it does flag up where it has occurred leading to quicker control measures to prevent spread.

“We need to be absolutely clear that it would be a fundamental error on the part of the Scottish Government, our employers, parents, or indeed anyone, to believe that Covid 19 will have gone away in August and that it will be business as usual for schools. It will not be.”

The Scottish Greens have called for a strategy to regularly test teachers to be drawn up urgently in order for it to be in place when pupils attend lessons again in August.

Education Secretary John Swinney has hinted he is “supportive” of teachers and school staff being routinely tested.

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Scottish Greens education spokesperson, Ross Greer, said: “Announcing a return to full-time schooling came as a huge relief for many parents, but the virus has not been eliminated and many teachers and support staff are extremely anxious about going back into classrooms with no social distancing. 

“Regular testing would reassure teachers and school staff that efforts are being made to protect them from the virus. It would ensure any infection in a school is stamped out before an outbreak can occur.

“Given how long it is taking to roll out regular testing in care homes though, it’s clear that if that is to happen for teachers and school staff from August 11, preparations need to begin now.”

Speaking at First Minister’s Questions, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Willie Rennie, asked Ms Sturgeon for reassurance that teacher safety will not be ignored when schools return.

He said: “Teachers are anxious. Will they have access to testing? What about teachers and children who are shielding? Will they return to full-time schooling in August?”

He added: “Teachers have been working incredibly hard to deliver lessons from home and to plan for the prospect of blended learning. Now the SNP have changed course and plan A is for full-time schooling to go ahead.

“Teachers need answers about health and safety in the classroom. They need guarantees about childcare and what will happen with pupils and teachers who are shielding. They also need a break to prevent them burning out completely.

"It will give teachers no comfort to hear that the plans for full time schooling were not agreed by the Government's own education group. They need to know that decisions are taken on the basis of sound science, not political expediency.

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“The Scottish Government need to provide concrete answers to these challenges swiftly, as well as setting out what testing provision will be made available to protect teachers and pupils when they do return to the classroom."

Ms Sturgeon confirmed that teachers will be a break before the start of the new school term.

She said: “I thank teachers and councils for their work to make sure that we have the contingency of blended learning, because we may need that; I want to be clear about that.

“We have no certainties with the virus and if there is a resurgence, nationally or locally, that model may be needed—that work has not been wasted and it is important that nobody suggests that it has been. Of course, teachers need a break like everybody does.”

The First Minister stressed that the “prerequisite” for full-time schooling to return is that the virus is kept being suppressed and “we all have a role to play in that”.

She added: “However, other safety measures need to be put in place, including the arrangements around physical distancing and testing.

“I believe that there is a big role for testing in assuring teachers and parents of the safety of schools, but the detail of that is the work that we will now do and which the Deputy First Minister will lead to make sure that, before schools go back, teachers, parents and young people have confidence in the safety of their education.”