Pupil sickness absences due to Covid are at a record high for the current school year, figures show.

The number of teachers not in school because they have coronavirus or are displaying its symptoms has also increased markedly since last week.

Signs that Omicron-linked pressures and disruption may be building once again within Scottish classrooms come after the First Minister said there would be no immediate change to Covid safety guidance, which includes the use of face masks by secondary pupils.

Nicola Sturgeon revealed on Tuesday that case numbers, while falling across the Scottish population, had increased by 41 per cent among the under-15s. She said the jump reflected "at least to some extent" the impact of the post-Christmas return to school.

READ MORE: Headmaster hits out at Nicola Sturgeon over Covid guidance

She told MSPs: "On the issue of face coverings, I know young people, like many adults, want to see the back of them as soon as possible.

“But I also know that many young people understand and agree, especially when cases in the younger age group are rising, that face coverings do provide important protection."

The move opens up a clear gap with policy in England. Pupils south of the Border are free to remove masks, with the lifting of the face covering requirement in school communal areas coming into effect from today. 

HeraldScotland: Daniel Wyatt (pictured, inset) has been strongly critical of Nicola Sturgeon's position on Covid guidance for schools.Daniel Wyatt (pictured, inset) has been strongly critical of Nicola Sturgeon's position on Covid guidance for schools.

Ms Sturgeon's position has also drawn an angry response from critics. Daniel Wyatt, Rector at Kelvinside Academy in Glasgow, said current arrangements were “farcical” and warned they could have a “catastrophic” impact on pupils.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon keeps school face mask rules

However, the latest figures provide some reinforcement for the Scottish Government’s cautious approach to easing restrictions within education settings.

Nearly 13,700 pupils (13,676) were not in school on Tuesday because of a Covid-related sickness. This is, by some distance, the highest figure since August 19 last year. It is also up from 12,874 on Monday and 10,585 on Tuesday of last week.

HeraldScotland: The latest graph shows Covid sickness among pupils is increasing. Source: SG Education Analytical ServicesThe latest graph shows Covid sickness among pupils is increasing. Source: SG Education Analytical Services  

The number of pupils not in school due to self-isolation is, following changes to Covid testing and quarantine guidance, well down on pre-Christmas figures. However, it too has increased markedly in recent days, jumping from 14,394 on January 17 to 17,010 on Tuesday.

HeraldScotland: Source: Public Health ScotlandSource: Public Health Scotland

Meanwhile, updated figures from Public Health Scotland show the percentage of cases recorded in the 0-17 age group shot up in the January 16-23 period. Their publication comes after statistics released last week by the Covid-19 education recovery group suggested much of the rise was being seen in the primary school population.

Currently, only those 5- to 11-year-olds at higher risk due to underlying health conditions, or who share living accommodation, on most days, with someone who has a weakened immune system, are being offered the coronavirus vaccination.

Absences among Scottish teachers also appear to be on the rise. Nearly 1,600 (1,571) were off on Tuesday because of confirmed Covid or its symptoms – well up on the total of 1,261 that was recorded for January 18. The number of teaching staff absent because they were self-isolating, shielding or looking after another individual for Covid-related reasons increased a little.

READ MORE: Exams attainment gap fears as SQA poised to boost pupil support

The Covid infection trend, if it continues, makes it more probable that the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) will confirm a move to scenario 2 in its preparation for this year’s exams.

Such a shift would see candidates given guidance on which topics to focus on in the run-up to the 2022 diet.

SQA bosses indicated previously that it was “more likely than not” that the change would happen.