There had been dire warnings from some, but it would appear Scottish schools coped reasonably well with Omicron-fuelled Covid rates as they reopened after the Christmas break.

Not that teacher absences – which last week hit a record high for the 2021/22 session - haven’t brought turbulence.

The Herald received several reports that gaping staff shortages were resulting in large groups of pupils being herded into canteens and halls, with staff pulled away from normal duties to cover classes. Yet most establishments have so far avoided having to close or tell children to learn at home. Union figures say school leaders and teachers are pulling out the stops – and piling on the hours – to keep Scotland’s education system moving. 

READ MORE: 'Inevitable' Omicron cases will rise in schools

Nevertheless, concern remains over the fast-spreading Omicron variant and its impact, particularly as young people sit prelims and undertake vital practical work necessary for national qualifications. MSPs certainly seemed keen to get a sense of where infection and absence rates might be heading during a meeting of Holyrood’s Education, Children and Young People Committee earlier this week.

Making predictions about the pandemic’s future course is a fool’s errand – but a quick glance at the latest figures provides grounds for thinking virus-related pressures within schools have abated in recent days.

Staff absences, for example, are down sharply on last week. In total, 2,139 teachers were not in school for Covid-related reasons on Tuesday. This compares with 2,936 on January 11.

HeraldScotland: Absence figures for teachers and other school-based staff have decreased sharply since last week. Source: SG Education Analytical Services Absence figures for teachers and other school-based staff have decreased sharply since last week. Source: SG Education Analytical Services

Particularly heartening is the large drop in the number of teaching staff absent because they have Covid or its symptoms. The figure decreased from 1,719 on January 11 to 1,261 on Tuesday. Coronavirus-linked absences among other school-based employees also fell markedly - from 2,201 to 1,668.

Amid signs the Omicron wave has peaked, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is under increasing pressure to relax the rules on wearing face masks in Scottish high schools.

The change has already been introduced south of the Border, where coverings are no longer required in classrooms. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to begin lifting “Plan B” Covid restrictions also means masks will not be needed in school communal areas from January 27.

READ MORE: Omicron restrictions to end from Monday amid 'optimism' Scotland exiting virus wave

The move is proving controversial and divisive. Many English headteachers say it took them by surprise and plan to encourage pupils to continue putting on face coverings indoors. However, campaigners north of the Border are urging ministers in Edinburgh to copy Mr Johnson. 

“It’s unfair on Scotland’s school children that they must continue to wear masks while their contemporaries in England can now get on without them,” said UFTScotland organiser Jo Bisset.

“This isn’t the first time restrictions have been more severe on young people here, and it’s not the first time rules have been tougher for kids than for adults.

“The Scottish Government has now belatedly admitted that the closure of schools does more harm than good, something parents across Scotland have been telling them for more than 18 months. They should now realise that the same applies to forcing children to wear masks all day.”

HeraldScotland: Boris Johnson is lifting Plan B Covid measures in England.Boris Johnson is lifting Plan B Covid measures in England.

Stand By Me Scotland co-organiser Ruth Harley, who is also a teacher, added: "Our senior pupils have been wearing them all day in school for 15 months now. The Scottish Government has continually moved the goalposts on when this measure, which was only supposed to be in place for the first 6 weeks of the autumn term, will be removed. This cannot continue.

“You can now go clubbing without a mask, eat a meal in a restaurant without a mask, debate in the Scottish Parliament without a mask - yet our children as young as 11 are expected to wear them for 6-7 hours a day in school. That just isn’t right.”

READ MORE: Thousands of pupils ‘missing from school’ due to Covid-related anxiety

But the government in Edinburgh is holding firm for the moment. Despite signs that national infection and hospitalisation rates appear to be on a downward trend, Deputy First Minister John Swinney said the requirement to wear face coverings in public places and secondary schools remained “absolute”.

Mr Swinney's remarks come amid ongoing worry over how the post-Christmas reopening of schools and workplaces will affect the data. Indeed Ms Sturgeon warned MSPs on Tuesday that Covid numbers could “tick up again in the next couple of weeks”. She added: "Just as the introduction of some protective measures may have helped slow down transmission, it stands to reason that the lifting of these measures could have the opposite effect. Indeed, that is exactly why it makes sense to lift measures on a phased basis."

HeraldScotland: Figures show pupil absences due to Covid sickness shot up from January 5 and have remained at a high level. Source: SG Education Analytical ServicesFigures show pupil absences due to Covid sickness shot up from January 5 and have remained at a high level. Source: SG Education Analytical Services

Statistics published since the start of the new term give pause for thought.

It is certainly true that overall figures for teacher and pupil absences have come down since last week. There was also a decline in case rates across all age groups in the week ending January 9.

However, the number of pupils not in school because of a Covid-related sickness has remained steady after jumping from 3,645 on January 5 to 8,113 the following day. In fact, it crept up to 9,978 on January 18 – the highest figure since September 10 last year.

Time will tell if this is a blip or the start of an upswing. Given continuing uncertainty, a cautious approach to easing mask-wearing rules in schools seems wise.