The government is pushing ahead with plans for primary school and older secondary school children to return to classrooms next week – although a senior minister admitted “we always keep things under review”.
There have been calls for the return of pupils after the Christmas holidays to be delayed until later in January, in a bid to cut COVID-19 transmission following the discovery of the new variant in the UK.
Millions more people in England have now entered Tier 4 restrictions following evidence the new variant spreads more quickly than the original strain – although schools can remain open under the highest level of coronavirus measures.
Officials from Number 10 and the Department for Education are reported to be meeting on Monday to discuss whether schools should be kept open in the event further measures are needed.
But, ahead of that meeting, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove told Sky News that – for now – the government remained committed to its plan for pupils to return from 4 January under a staggered schedule.
“Our plan is that primary schools will go back but with secondary schools it will be the case that next week only children in Year 11 and Year 13 – those who are doing their GCSEs, their BTECs, their A-levels – those will go back,” he said.
“And also children of key workers and children who are vulnerable and need the support and care that schools that can provide.
“Other children in secondary schools won’t go back for a week after that.”
A recent paper on the new COVID variant by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine has warned that even action similar to November’s national lockdown across England is “unlikely” to reduce the R rate of infection to below one “unless primary schools, secondary schools, and universities are also closed”.
Without the R rate falling below one, COVID infections will continue to increase.
Both London mayor Sadiq Khan and Conservative mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey have called for schools to reopen later than planned in January.
Meanwhile, the Politico website reported the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has urged ministers to keep secondary schools closed next month in a bid to dampen the rise in infections.
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But, asked if the government could be flexible in its plans for schools to return, Mr Gove reiterated the government’s plan to push ahead with reopening schools from next week with enhanced testing.
“We always keep things under review,” he said.
“But teachers and headteachers 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.
“So we do keep things under review but that is the plan.”
Pressed on whether the government was still committed to holding exams in England this summer – despite them being scrapped in Wales and Scotland – Mr Gove said: “Yes, absolutely.”
Conservative MP Robert Halfon, the chair of the House of Commons education committee, has urged the government to do “everything possible to keep schools open”.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, he warned there is “no panacea for educational deprivation”, adding: “Thanks to the genius of science, the march of new diseases like COVID can be halted.
“But there will never be a vaccine against the lost opportunity and wrecked life chances of a generation.”
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