Michael Gove has said the government hopes the staggered reopening of schools in England will go ahead as planned, despite reports that scientists have recommended they should all be closed to prevent coronavirus infections surging.
The Cabinet Office minister said he was confident primary school pupils and Year 11 and Year 13 pupils in England would be able to return in the first week of January, with the rest going back later in the month.
Speaking to Sky News, he said: “Our plan is that primary schools will go back but with secondary schools only children in years 11 and 13 – that’s those doing their GCSEs, their BTECs, their A-levels – those will go back.
“And also, children of key workers and those that are vulnerable and need support and care that school can provide.
“Other children in secondary schools won’t go back until a week after that.”
The commitment comes as it was reported the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has recommended all secondary schools remain closed in January.
According to Politico, the body advised that the R rate might be kept below 1 if schools stay closed in January and that closing secondary schools would have a bigger impact than shutting primary schools.
Officials from Downing Street and the Department for Education are due to discuss the issue on Monday.
Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, wrote to the Education Secretary on Monday demanding further action on school safety.
The letter calls for Gavin Williamson to allow schools to move to remote learning for all pupils, except those deemed to be vulnerable or the children of key workers, in the highest tier areas.
“Delaying the return of pupils to schools and colleges at the start of the spring term will also enable all school and college employers to undertake and consult as required on new risk assessments and ensure that they can be compliant with any new measures or requirements contained in any forthcoming national guidance,” it says.
It comes amid rising concern of a new virus variant that has been spreading rapidly around London and southern England and has now been detected in France and Spain.
Scientists have suggested that the mutated coronavirus strain could more easily infect children.
Gove did acknowledge the schools situation could change.
“We always keep things under review but teachers and head teachers have been working incredibly hard over the Christmas period since schools broke up in order to prepare for a new testing regime – community testing – in order to make sure that children and all of us are safer,” he told Sky News.
“We do keep things under review but that is the plan.”
The National Education Union has previously said the government should allow schools to move classes online for most pupils for a fortnight in January to allow Covid-19 cases to fall.