Scottish primary schools fully reopening would “most likely” see the NHS overwhelmed by coronavirus within two months, Nicola Sturgeon has warned.
The Scottish government has published a new paper of options for starting to lift the virus lockdown.
They include some year groups returning ahead of others, pupils attending school part-time, and a combination of in-school and home learning.
Ms Sturgeon said the government would not compromise children’s safety.
And she said any return to school “might not be possible at all ahead of the summer holidays”, which begin in June and end in August.
A group of major teaching unions had written to education secretaries across the UK urging “significant caution in any consideration of reopening schools”.
The new Scottish government paper sets out options for gradually easing the social distancing restrictions that have been in place since March, but notes that “extreme caution” will have to be exercised.
It warns that there are estimated to be approximately 26,000 infectious people in Scotland, with the number “much too high at present to consider the virus under control”.
A range of options for lifting restrictions is suggested, from allowing people to spend more time outdoors to starting to re-open some businesses and a “phased approach to returning pupils to school”.
The paper warns that “we do not consider it likely that schools will re-open fully in the foreseeable future indeed, we are not yet certain that they can re-open at all in the near future”.
A group chaired by Education Secretary John Swinney is examining how a phased return could work.
The options could include “priority groups” such as vulnerable pupils, those who are transitioning from primary to secondary, and those who are starting national qualification courses in S3 to S6 returning to schools first.
The paper says a “new approach to schooling” will be needed to maintain physical distancing, with “most pupils likely to have a blend of in-school and at-home learning”.
Where children do return to schools in person, they could do so in small groups for blocks of a few days or a week at a time, which would allow deep cleaning of classrooms between groups.
Learning at home would be supported by “consistent, high quality online materials” which would be developed to support the curriculum.
Ms Sturgeon said there were “really difficult decisions” to be made, but that it was important to make the choices clear as people would not send their children back to school unless they had confidence in the system.
The paper also outlines the risks of re-opening schools too quickly echoing concerns raised by teachers.
A group of 10 teaching unions, including the EIS, NASUWT and SSTA, had written to Mr Swinney and UK Education Secretary Gavin Williamson warning of the “very real risk of creating a spike in the transmission of the virus by a premature opening of schools”.
The letter said “significant operational changes” should be in place to ensure effective social distancing, “strong hygiene routines” and appropriate PPE available where required.
The Scottish government said that studying data from across the world, the “most likely” outcome of fully re-opening primary schools and nurseries now would be “a resurgence in the virus such that hospital capacity in Scotland would be overwhelmed in less than two months”.
The paper said this illustrated “the risks we face in considering various options, and the merit in delaying a decision to re-open until transmission of the virus is much reduced from the current level”.
All of the options in the paper are currently under consideration, but Ms Sturgeon stressed that “we are not recommending these options at the moment but offer them as examples of what may come next and the kind of preparations that are under way”.
She said: “I want to be crystal clear that while we will of course take the greatest care in all of this, that that is particularly the case with schools. We will not compromise the safety of your children.
“Lifting the lockdown will not be like flicking a switch. It will be a gradual process which will happen in phases.
“What we are seeking to do is find a path to a new normal one which is less restrictive than the current lockdown, but which doesn’t risk the virus running rampant again.”