Scotland's education secretary John Swinney has admitted there is “every possibility” that Scottish high schools may still have to use blended learning as more pupils return to the classroom.

Yesterday it was confirmed that a small number of senior students would be able to return to high school from Monday, if they need to do so for practical work.

Meanwhile younger children including P1 to P3 and nursery school attendees are also set to return to class on Monday full time.

However, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said it is unlikely any more pupils will return to face-to-face learning before March 15 when she confirmed the move to MSPs on Tuesday.

Senior pupils permitted to return to class next week will need to stick to two-metre social distancing within schools and on school buses, Ms Sturgeon confirmed, with Covid-19 testing also being made available to them and their teachers.

Mr Swinney said the need to ensure social distancing means fewer pupils can be in school at the same time.

A "successful programme of remote learning"

Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme on Wednesday, he said: “The scientific advice I have available to me just now recognises that physical distancing will be required for at least senior phase pupils in our secondary schools.”

Asked about the prospect of blended learning – which would see pupils in class for part of the week and learning remotely for the remainder – he said there is “every possibility, unless that advice changes, that we have to operate on such a model”.

Mr Swinney said he could not be “definitive about timescales” for when any blended learning model may begin.

He added: “There is a very successful programme of remote learning being delivered by schools around the country, which is delivering education in the home to many, many pupils.

“From Monday those senior pupils who need to have access to schools for practical exercises will be able to get that access from Monday onwards.

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“We are working to reduce the prevalence of the virus, to make sure we can restore education on a safe basis.

“We will take considered decisions based on the evidence that is available to us about when we can return pupils to face-to-face learning, and I am absolutely crystal clear, I want to make sure we return pupils to face-to-face learning as soon as it is safe to do so.

“But I have to be mindful of the clinical and scientific advice that is put to me to make sure that everybody, staff and pupils, are safe in this process.”

Meanwhile, Scotland's largest teachers union has said it does not agree with the Scottish Government's decision to allow full classes for younger pupils to return next week.

"Canaries in the mine shaft"

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, says teachers are calling for a more limited return to Scottish schools - suggesting half classes would be more appropriate.

He told Sky News: "We all would like to see schools reopen and face-to-face teaching resume, but to some extent some of our members feel as if they are the canaries in the mineshaft with the timeline that has been set out by the Scottish Government yesterday.

"What we suggested to government was that rather than going for full classes returning in P1 to P3, we should go for half classes and effectively at a part-time phased return.

"The reason for that is because of the concern of this new variant, the Kent variant which has arrived in Scotland."

"We would have preferred that next week's reopening was on that part-time phased return, and that's what we're still arguing."

He added: "That would have been a safer first step, given the concerns of members have around the infection levels."

The EIS previously warned it had significant concerns over school safety which they say remain to be addressed.

Mr Flanagan said: "Community infection levels have fallen but still remain high in areas such as North Lanarkshire and at 6% the test positivity rate in Scotland remains above the level that the World Health Organisation recommends as indicative of the virus being under control."

Mr Flanagan added: "It is disappointing that the Scottish Government has not supported the introduction of medical grade face masks for staff, as they offer greater protection for wearers than simple face coverings."

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"It should reconsider its stance as a matter of urgency.  We would also expect that staff with increased vulnerabilities will be advised to continue to work from home during this first phase.

"The introduction of twice weekly testing for staff and senior pupils is welcome, as is the requirement for senior pupils to physically distance."

"Looking forward, however, to any fuller return of pupils it is clear that the prioritisation of teachers and other school staff for vaccination remains a straightforward way to ensure in-school safety. If having schools open is a priority for the Scottish Government, then protecting school staff should also be a priority."

He concluded: "Whilst Scottish Government timelines can appear to be self-fulfilling prophecies, there will need to be a meticulous analysis of this first phase and its impact, before any further return is progressed."