Schools in most of Scotland's local authority areas have reopened following the Christmas break – so what do initial figures tell us about the pressures they’re facing as the Omicron variant continues to spread?

Principals in England are certainly sounding the alarm bells. A snap survey by the National Association of Headteachers found more than a third (36 per cent) of those who responded were dealing with Covid-linked staff absence rates in excess of 10%.

Such numbers will increase the risk of disruption to education as headteachers consider whether their establishments must close and move to remote learning. Already there have been warnings that schools are “teetering on the edge”.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon told Covid rules risk teacher cases spike

Most Scottish councils contacted by The Herald said all schools and nurseries had reopened according to plan. Only a few were forced to bring in remote learning for some classes or year groups as a result of Covid-related staff absence.

However, although the situation seems relatively benign for the moment, early statistics are likely to give ministers cause for concern.

South Lanarkshire Council (SLC) said around 3,600 children and young people – 8% of the nursery, primary and secondary school roll – were off on Wednesday because they had Covid or symptoms of Covid, or because they were self-isolating. This compares with December 14 last year, when 2,062 pupils were not in school for coronavirus-related reasons. Scottish Government graphs also suggest Wednesday’s total could be the highest for months.

HeraldScotland: The graph above shows Covid-related absences among South Lanarkshire pupils between August and December last year. Source: SG Education Analytical Services The graph above shows Covid-related absences among South Lanarkshire pupils between August and December last year. Source: SG Education Analytical Services

In addition, South Lanarkshire schools were dealing with 236 Covid-linked teacher absences – well over double the number recorded for December 14.

HeraldScotland: This bar chart shows Covid-related absences among South Lanarkshire teachers and other school-based staff on December 14, 2021. Source: SG Education Analytical ServicesThis bar chart shows Covid-related absences among South Lanarkshire teachers and other school-based staff on December 14, 2021. Source: SG Education Analytical Services

There are signs of staffing pressures elsewhere in Scotland. Fife Council said there were 85 coronavirus-related teacher absences on Thursday.

In West Lothian, the figure was around 150 - approximately 5% of the teaching workforce. However, council bosses noted the total was below that recorded in the week prior to Christmas. Government statistics show the authority recorded 153 Covid-related teacher absences on December 14 last year.

A more detailed picture will emerge next week when national figures are published. But if it is revealed that absence rates are increasing rapidly, the implications for teaching and learning will be grave. If the statistics remain persistently high, Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville and her officials could be facing a fresh crisis in schooling.

READ MORE: Pupils told to learn at home

SLC bosses stressed there were no school closures on Wednesday. However, given supply staff availability is currently said to be poor, the loss of so many teachers will deliver a significant hit to the quality of classroom-based education. One union figure told The Herald that, in such situations, schools were often little more than “childcare” facilities. Earlier this week, TES magazine spoke to a headteacher who said unprecedented staff absences had forced him to merge two classes and then supervise them in the school canteen.

It’s also important to remember that the numbers outlined above are only for absences linked to Covid. The overall figures will be even higher.

With Omicron continuing to run rampant, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has acted to reduce the disruption caused by staff being forced to stay away from workplaces. Self-isolation can now be cut from 10 to seven days if individuals have no fever and test negative for the virus on an LFD on days six and seven. Close contacts, including household contacts, of a positive case can avoid isolation if they have had at least three vaccine doses, have no symptoms, and continue to test negative using daily LFDs.

HeraldScotland: Nicola Sturgeon has announced new rules on self-isolation in an effort to alleviate staffing pressures - but some fear the change could lead to more positive cases in schools.Nicola Sturgeon has announced new rules on self-isolation in an effort to alleviate staffing pressures - but some fear the change could lead to more positive cases in schools.

While the change will have some impact on staffing pressures, much depends on infection trends over the coming weeks. If these stay high – and there are fears that reducing self-isolation under certain conditions will only lead to more positive cases – absences may continue to increase.

The longer-term consequences of a third year of disrupted education hardly need to be spelled out. But there are also more immediate worries. Those in S4-6, for example, will be looking ahead to their exams, with many S5-6s also due to sit prelims. Stubbornly high rates of teacher and pupil absence could scupper their preparation efforts, particularly if they live in disadvantaged circumstances. Such a scenario would also have serious implications for the 2022 exams diet itself. Already there have been calls for ministers and the Scottish Qualifications Authority to move towards the contingency plan that would see teachers and candidates given advance sight of some topics that will feature in question papers.

READ MORE: Schools crisis fears over teacher absences and lack of supply

The First Minister and her Education Secretary will be hoping the situation in schools stabilises quickly as Omicron’s peak passes and case numbers decrease.

However, uncertainty over when that might happen means pupils, teachers and parents could be in for a bumpy ride.