THE number of pupils absent from school in Scotland because of the coronavirus has nearly trebled since the October holiday as teachers' representatives have warned that there is a lack of effective physical distancing.

New figures reveal that since the children returned to school in August, the number of absentees as a direct result of Covid-19 has risen by three-and-a-half times.

And since the October holiday, in the space of 12 days the numbers soared from 8,295 to 23,511 on Wednesday.

Both the Scottish and UK governments are determined to keep schools open despite a surge of deaths and cases in a second wave of the virus.

But unions have told the Herald that school closures must remain on the agenda and say "much more" needs to be done to keep teachers and pupils safe whilst schools remain open fully.

READ MORE: Teachers warn of legal consequences over Covid safety as Scots schools re-open

Union leaders are now saying closures should be an option and talk about the prospect of blended learning,a mix of online tuition and classroom instruction, as concerns grow about safety in the classroom.

Schools across Scotland were reopened by August 18 after the Scottish Government's previous plans for blended learning, with pupils learning at home for part of the school week, receivingan angry reaction from some parents and opposition politicians.

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They were eventually put to one side, as it was decided to have pupils in classrooms.

It has emerged that more than one in five of the pupils at a secondary school in New Stevenston, near Motherwell are self-isolating after an outbreak of coronavirus.

Concerned parents at Taylor High School, the six-year Roman Catholic comprehensive secondary school, which caters for around 900 pupils, had called for the temporary closure of the school as more than 200 mainly pupils were sent home to self isolate after several children tested positive.

New schools safety guidance which came into play on Monday to take account of the five-level Covid alert system, states that pupils and their teachers should wear face coverings in classrooms for schools in the new level 3 and 4 restriction areas.

Parents were to wear masks even at drop-off and pick-up in the new rules.

Other guidance advises staff to wear face coverings in all schools, where social distancing is not possible.

Larry Flanagan, the general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), Scotland's largest teachers union has said that they are "absolutely clear that school closures and remote and blended learning options need to remain contingencies, particularly but not exclusively at Level 4."

READ MORE: Parents call for Taylor High School in Lanarkshire to shut as over 200 pupils and staff self-isolate

The union has been considering his paper which calls for for Level 4 to trigger an immediate review of options for schools based on teacher perception of school safety and local data regarding infection levels.

This could lead to part time blended learning, a move to remote learning, or "enhanced mitigations" to allow schools to stay open.

They are looking at an immediate survey of members on the issue, to determine their attitudes on current school safety status and what might be done in response to schools deemed unsafe.

Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT said: “The latest revisions to the Government’s guidance will only make a difference in helping to keep teachers and pupils safe if it is backed up by concrete actions to ensure that the guidance is followed consistently across all schools.

“The NASUWT has been clear from the outset that teachers and other school staff must be afforded the same levels of protection as all other workers. The strengthening of the guidance for schools on the use of face masks by staff, pupils and parents is welcome, but the Government must also address the lack of any effective physical distancing in schools which continues to be a major factor in helping the spread of the coronavirus in schools.

“Whilst it is welcome that the latest Government guidance accepts that where schools cannot be made safe for clinically vulnerable teachers and other staff they should work from home, it is clear that no school can be made risk free. The Government and employers must ensure that those staff whose lives are most at risk as a result of this second wave of coronavirus transmission are given a clear entitlement to stay at home and work from home."

The union said the Scottish Government must also act to ensure that employers urgently review and update their Covid-19 risk assessments and safety mitigation measures and the increasing incidence of Covid across Scotland.

READ MORE: Coronavirus Scotland: Teachers warns schools must close if needed

And it will be insisting that the Government continues to review the situation and "to go further" to ensure the safety of schools as the current situation demands.

It comes as Scottish research showed that online learning was “better than traditional instruction”.

Parents group UsForThem Scotland said that new rules forcing children to wear masks throughout the school day coincided with the spike in absences and have now called for a rethink of the policy.

Jo Bisset, organiser for UsForThem Scotland, said: “We’ve warned from the start that forcing children to spend all day in a mask will cause more to miss school, and these statistics show exactly that consequence.

"The fear is that for some pupils, particularly vulnerable ones, the enforced wearing of a face covering can be the difference between going to school and not."

A University of Dundee analysis of 1,500 academic papers dating back to the year 2000 has concluded that blended learning is preferable to conventional teaching in schools.

It reveals that 61% (946) of the 1,540 studies showed that digital technology was "better than traditional instruction", while 115 (7%) found it the same. Only 2% (29) found digital technology worse than normal classroom teaching, although it said that publication bias has to be considered.

But there have been concerns about whether teachers having to employ 'blended learning' will have the resources and support to allow online tuition.

A union study last month found that that just over half of instrumental music teachers are having to use blended learning.

When asked if the local authority had provided the necessary resources to carry out online tuition, 50% said no and 50% said yes.

A Music Education Partnership Group study involving over 200 teachers and tutors, 60 students, 70 parents and carers and 25 youth music organisations in June and July found that "initial scepticism" for online teaching generally disappated amongst tutors.

But only a "very small" percentage had experienced more than a year with online lessons before the lockdown. Even though online systems had been in place for several years, the report states the evidence from the interviewees was that the use of online facilities for teaching purposes was "minimal".