TEACHING union leaders have welcomed Scottish schools remaining closed until at least February 1 - but have called for a “cautious approach” to continue amid a lack of clarity on the impact the new Covid-19 strain has on children.

Nicola Sturgeon has announced that schools will remain closed until at least February 1 across the whole of Scotland, pointing to the high level of community transmission and lack of details over the new strain of the virus.

The new strain, believed to be up to 70 per cent more transmissible, is now contributing to around half of the new cases confirmed in Scotland – while the country now has a test positivity rate of 15 per cent – three times the level set by the World Health Organization.

READ MORE: Coronavirus Scotland: Schools to remain shut until February

Ministers will review the decision to close schools until February 1 in the middle of January where the closure could be extended further.

The First Minister has indicated that primary schools and nurseries could re-open before secondary schools, once it is deemed safe to do so.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon puts Scotland back into ‘stay at home’ lockdown

EIS general secretary, Larry Flanagan, said: “There was already heightened concern from teachers in level 4 areas around school safety and the surge in infection levels, driven by the new variant, will have compounded those concerns especially as it seems clear that children can be as easily infected as anyone by the new strain, with subsequent transmission also occurring.

"Given that social distancing amongst pupils is physically impossible in crowded classrooms, moving to remote learning is the correct decision, therefore, if we are to successfully drive down community infection levels.  Suppressing the virus is key to school buildings safely reopening.”

He added: “Whilst the education system is better prepared to deliver education remotely than during the first lockdown, challenges remain and we need to ensure that all pupils, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, can access learning on an equitable basis.

“We have raised with the Scottish Government the question of prioritising vaccination of school staff as a mechanism to allow school buildings to reopen for all pupils.” 

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teachers’ union, said: “We welcome the First Minister’s announcement that schools will remain closed to all but key worker and vulnerable children until at least February 1. This will provide a measure of relief to many highly anxious teachers, parents, pupils and school staff at this difficult time.

“While the NASUWT has always supported schools remaining open to all pupils as long as it is safe to do so, it is clear, as the First Minister herself has acknowledged today, that the threat posed by the new Covid variant has escalated the risks to the health and welfare of pupils, teachers and the wider community considerably and that the only safe course of action is to move to an extended period of remote education at this time.

“The First Minister stated that the significant uncertainty on the impact of the new variant on children, along with the overall high level of virus transmission in the community had guided the decision to extend the period of remote learning.

“It will now be vital that in reviewing the closure of schools on January 18 the First Minister continues to be guided by the medical and scientific evidence on the impact of the new variant, with the priority the safety, health and welfare of children, young people and school staff. The highly cautious and preventative approach set out today must be maintained in order to protect health and welfare.”