Coronavirus transmission could “go through the roof” if all schoolchildren were allowed back into the classroom at the same time, Nicola Sturgeon has warned.
The First Minister spoke out as Westminster indicated all youngsters in England can go back to face-to-face learning from March 8.
Scotland has allowed some children back into school from Monday, February 22, but a much smaller number, with nursery youngsters and pupils in the first three years of primary returning, along with a small number of senior high school students who need to do practical work as part of their qualifications.
Asked why the Scottish Government had not taken the same approach as Boris Johnson’s UK administration, Ms Sturgeon said: “If we were to do that right now we would send transmission through the roof again very quickly.”
The campaign group Us For Them Scotland warned if the Scottish Government did not match the timetable in England, pupils north of the border would be left behind.
Organiser Jo Bisset said: “If Scottish pupils are forced to stay out of school for longer than their English counterparts it will create problems for the future.
“They will be receiving a lower standard of education than the very people they’ll be competing against for jobs and university places.
“The UK Government has hardly been impressive on this issue – but at least parents and children in England now have some clarity and some hope.
“We need to see the same for Scotland.”
But the First Minister, speaking at her regular coronavirus briefing, explained the “fear” was the impact that youngsters returning to school would lead to more interactions across the population as a whole.
The Scottish Government has already warned parents whose children are returning to school not to meet up with friends at the school gate or see the move as a chance for them to go back into the office.
Asked about her approach, the First Minister said: “Is it ideal? No. Because I want every child back to school right now.
“But I think that is the most sensible and sustainable way of doing this, in a way that is going to stick.
“That, after a year of this misery, that is really the important thing, getting us out of this lockdown in a way that sticks.”
Ms Sturgeon stressed the need to proceed on a “careful and cautious basis” as she noted that the return for some pupils to schools in Scotland was “a couple of weeks earlier than any return in England”.
She added ministers would need to assess the impact of this before hopefully allowing more children to return “later in March” – with the First Minister having already said this will not happen before March 15.
She told parents: “If we do this in a way that sends the virus out of control again, then what we will be facing will be all schools being shut again, and even the kids we have got back today not being in school.”
With the R number in Scotland – the average number of people infected by each person who contracts Covid-19 – standing between 0.7 and 0.9, she said there was “very, very limited headroom” for easing the current lockdown restrictions.
Ms Sturgeon added the Government was “choosing to spend it today on getting some children back to school”, adding that “hopefully, what will happen over the next two to three weeks is cases will come down further because the rest of us stick to lockdown and vaccination rates go up”.
If that happens she said ministers could “become confident that the partial return to school hasn’t had a really negative effect on transmission” and would ” feel confident then about getting the next tranche of kids back to school”.
Chief Medical Officer Dr Gregor Smith said while he was “absolutely delighted” some children had been able to go back to school, he was also a “a little bit uneasy about it”.
He said: “We need to make sure we are tracking the impact of this. We know whenever schools return it is not so much the impact that schools have but the way the rest of the nation behaves beyond that.
“Because as soon as children are back in school it allows the rest of the population just a little bit more freedom to act and the possibility, if people are not careful, that they create opportunities for the virus to transmit between them.
“That is why it is really, really important we take a cautious and sustainable approach to the return of the schools just now.”
He continued: “Over the next three weeks we will be tracking very, very carefully what happens with transmission.
“If everybody plays their part and if everybody makes sure they are very cautious in terms of limiting the ability of this virus to transmit between people, I am fairly confident we will get to a position in three or four weeks’ time where we can start to consider the next stages.”