The return of primary and secondary schools in Tier 4 hotspots in England could be delayed by two weeks in the New Year as ministers try to tackle a surge in coronavirus cases.
Gavin Williamson will this afternoon set out a revised plan for the staggered return of pupils to classrooms after he faced massive pressure from teachers, unions and scientists to push back the reopening of schools.
The Government has been planning for the majority of secondary school and college pupils to start the term online from January 4 before resuming face-to-face lessons from January 11.
The one week delay was planned to give schools some time to put in place a mass coronavirus testing programme.
But the reopening will now reportedly be pushed back in order to give schools more time to prepare for administering checks to pupils.
The Sun reported Mr Williamson’s new plan could see secondary schools told to stay shut for an extra week, with exam year pupils back from January 11 and the rest from January 18. Primaries would still open on January 4 as planned.
However, all schools in the worst Tier 4 hotspots could be told to remain closed for an extra two weeks.
The exact details of the plan are still thought to be being hammered out but it is understood that nurseries will be allowed to stay open everywhere.
Mr Williamson will set out his new blueprint in a statement to MPs in the House of Commons later today.
Gavin Williamson will deliver a statement to MPs in the House of Commons this afternoon to set out the Government’s revised plan for the return of schools in the New Year
The Government’s initial plan was for exam year pupils to physically return to secondary schools and colleges from January 4 while the other students took part in online learning before then going back on January 11.
But it is widely expected the physical return to the classroom for many pupils will be delayed beyond January 11 as ministers try to slow the spread of the disease after a new more infectious strain of coronavirus caused case numbers to surge.
Mr Williamson’s announcement will come after a number of senior scientists called for schools to remain completely shut in January, arguing that such drastic action is the only way to bring infection rates down.
Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said there had been a ‘balancing act’ since lockdown was initially eased between keeping control of the virus and maintaining ‘some semblance of normal society’.
But he said the planned reopening of schools from next week may have to be postponed.
He told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme yesterday: ‘Clearly nobody wants to keep schools shut. But if that’s the only alternative to having exponentially growing numbers of hospitalisations, that may be required at least for a period.
‘There are no easy solutions here. My real concern is that even if universities, schools, do have staggered returns or even stay closed, how easy it would be to maintain control of the virus is unclear now, given how much more transmissible this variant is.’
Earlier, Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) members Professor Andrew Hayward and Dr Mike Tildesley signalled the possibility of a ‘slight delay’ to having pupils back in the classroom.
Figures published yesterday by NHS England showed a further 365 people who tested positive for Covid-19 had died, taking the total number of confirmed reported deaths in hospitals in England to 49,225.
Downing Street said yesterday that it was ‘still planning for a staggered opening of schools’ after Christmas but insisted the plans were being kept under constant review.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesman told a Westminster briefing: ‘We’re still planning for a staggered opening of schools and we are working to ensure testing is in place.
‘As we have said throughout the pandemic, we obviously keep all measures under constant review.’
Earlier this month, the Government said exam-year students in England would go back to school as normal after the Christmas holidays from January 4.
But the majority of secondary school pupils would start the term online to allow headteachers to roll out mass testing of children and staff before heading back from January 11.
Schools in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will also use staggered returns for pupils in January, with some pupils participating in online classes before the gradual reintroduction of face-to-face teaching later in the month or in February for some age groups.
The prospect of a further delay to the return of secondary and college pupils to the classroom will reignite warnings over the damage the pandemic is doing to students’ learning.
Robert Halfon, the Tory chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee, has demanded the Government set out a long term plan for the sector to give parents, teachers and pupils certainty.
He said schools can no longer be treated like a ‘revolving door’ with staff and students ‘not knowing from one day to the next what is going to happen’.
Soldiers are being drafted in by the Government to help schools set up testing facilities but unions and head teachers have blasted ministers for the short notice they were given to put the measures in place.
The proposed roll-out of mass testing in schools was only announced the week before Christmas, prompting a race against time to find volunteers to administer checks to pupils.
Teaching unions said it would be impossible to get the testing programme in place by January 11 and have called for the return of pupils to be delayed.
Jon Richards, Unison head of education, said: ‘It’s clearly important for schools and colleges to be open but that has to be weighed against the rapid spread of infection, particularly in schools.
‘Mass testing of staff and pupils has been rushed and schools are struggling to cope with demand.
‘It makes sense that schools should move online for at least the first fortnight of term, to enable proper plans for mass testing to be put in place.’