Return to school delayed for secondary pupils to allow for COVID testing preparations

The return of secondary schools will be delayed beyond the government’s earlier promise, the education secretary has announced.

Exam year students will return on 11 January, with other secondary school students to follow a week later on 18 January, to enable preparations for the testing of pupils and staff to take place.

The majority of primary schools will open as planned on 4 January.

Some primary schools in areas with the highest rates of coronavirus will not open on that date, Gavin Williamson said.

He added that full details of primaries that would remain closed on 4 January would be published on the government’s website, but Labour’s Wes Streeting has tweeted that he has been told that, so far, no list has been published.

Setting out a new plan in the House of Commons, Mr Williamson said schools up and down the country face a “rapidly changing situation”.

He told MPs: “All pupils in exam years are to return during the week beginning January 11 with all secondary school and college students returning full time on January 18.

“During the first week of term on or after January 4, secondary schools and colleges will prepare to test as many staff and students as possible and will only be open to vulnerable children and children of key workers.

“The 1,500 military personnel committed to supporting schools and colleges will remain on task providing virtual training and advice on establishing the testing process with teams on standby to provide in-person support if required by schools.

“Testing will then begin the following week in earnest with those who are in exam years at the head of the queue.

“This is in preparation for the full return of all pupils in all year groups on January 18 in most areas.”

The news comes just 24 hours after the government insisted it was pushing ahead with plans for primary school and older secondary school children to return to classrooms next week.

There had been demands for the return of pupils after the Christmas holidays to be delayed – including from teaching unions – until later in January.

Scientists have advised that keeping schools and universities closed will dampen infection rates.

A recent paper on the new COVID variant by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine warned that even action similar to November’s second national lockdown across England – in which schools remained open – was “unlikely” to reduce the reproduction rate of infection to below one “unless primary schools, secondary schools, and universities are also closed”.

Teaching unions had previously expressed concerns after Mr Williamson outlined before Christmas plans to test staff and students from the first week of January.

At least one of them remained unimpressed.

Joint general secretary of the National Education Union Dr Mary Bousted said she was “astonished” at Mr Williamson’s announcement.

She said: “With warnings from eminent scientists of an ‘imminent catastrophe’ unless the whole of the UK is locked down, and with more cases in hospitals than ever before and our NHS facing an enormous crisis, the Secretary of State is sending the majority of primary pupils and staff back on Monday to working environments which aren’t Covid secure.

“The Government has not, despite being repeatedly asked, published the scientific guidance on the risks involved in school and college reopening. This information is desperately needed – particularly as the new variants of the virus are 50% more transmissible.

“The Government in Scotland will not reopen schools till 18 January at the earliest. The Government in Westminster should have done that at least.

In the subsequent parliamentary debate, a number of questions about the government’s plans for schools went unanswered by Gavin Williamson.

He was asked how many primary schools in England will be forced to switch to remote learning next week, whether exams can go ahead in the summer and whether school staff will be prioritised in the latest vaccine roll out.

He did not provide clear responses on any of these issues, simply stressing that the government’s plans to roll out testing would enable schools to get pupils back into face-to-face learning as quickly as possible.

There is already social media bewilderment that the government have announced some primaries will be forced to keep their doors closed next Monday, but given no information about where that will be the case.

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