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Government confirms plans for return of primary and secondary schools and universities in January 2021

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Secondary school pupils in England will now go back to class later than planned, the education secretary has announced.

Those in exam years will return on January 11, instead of January 4, with the rest returning to classrooms on January 18.

Secondary students faced a delayed start to the new term in January 2021
Secondary students faced a delayed start to the new term in January 2021

Education secretary Gavin Williamson said the move is aimed at helping schools to roll out mass Covid-19 testing amid the ongoing rise in cases.

Only children of key workers and vulnerable children will return to secondary schools on January 4.

Secondary schools and colleges will be asked to prepare to administer lateral flow tests to as many staff and students as possible, with military personnel providing virtual training and teams on standby to offer in-person support if required.

However, some secondary schools and colleges in areas of England with very high rates of Covid infection rates will only offer face-to-face education for exam-year pupils, vulnerable children and children of critical workers, with remote learning offered to others.

Mr Williamson also confirmed that the “overwhelming majority” of primary schools will open as planned on January 4.

He said: “In a small number of areas where the infection rates are highest, we will implement our existing contingency framework, such that only vulnerable children and children of critical workers will attend face to face.”

As with secondary schools, the government will publish a list of these areas later, but Mr Williamson said it would not be all Tier 4 areas, and those locations would be reviewed regularly so that schools can open as early as possible.

The return to school diary at a glance

January 4:

  • The “overwhelming majority” of primary school pupils return to class, except those in areas worst affected by Covid-19
  • Children of key workers and vulnerable children return to secondary schools
  • Secondary schools prepare to roll out Covid-19 tests for teachers and students

January 11:

  • Secondary school students in exam years - Years 11 and 13 - return to class, except those in areas worst affected by Covid-19

January 18:

  • All other secondary school students return to class, except those in areas worst affected by Covid-19

This timetable effectively delays the government’s original plans for secondary schools by a week.

Mr Willamson said: “We must always act swiftly when circumstances change. The evidence about the new Covid variant and rising infection rates have required some immediate adjustment to our plans for the new term.”

He added: “The latest study we have from Public Health England is that Covid infections among children are triggered by changes in the community rate. The study also says that the wider impact of school closures on children’s development would be significant.

“I’m quite clear that we must continue to do all we can to keep children in school.”

The changes came after teaching unions called on the government to introduce a greater period of remote learning.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA
Education secretary Gavin Williamson. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA

The National Education Union (NEU) called for a two-week period of remote learning, followed by a switch to a rota system that would reduce the number of students in schools at any one time.

Speaking before the education secretary’s announcement, Niamh Sweeney, an NEU representative for the Eastern region who teaches at Long Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, told the Cambridge Independent: “The National Education Union has been calling since October for the government to allow schools and colleges to move to a period of remote learning and then a rota system which will enable them to have fewer students on site at any one time.

“This would encourage social distancing, which isn’t possible when all children are in the classrooms at the same time.

“We know that would reduce the amount of the virus in the community and give a longer run-in time for a proper test, track, trace and isolate programme to be put in place.

“We’ve got an opportunity to do that now but it seems every time the government needs to make a decision, it’s surprised that it has to. We always knew January was going to be a big pinch point.”

Ms Sweeney said schools were in a better position now to teach students remotely.

“As a teacher, I’m much more prepared to move to good remote learning for my students now than I was in March.

“I’d never taught online or prepared online resources for my students before March, but now I’m quite good at it. It’s not the same as being face-to-face, but it’s a much better way to start January, support the NHS and keep case rates down in the community,” she said.

Meanwhile, Ms Sweeney said there were more questions than answers about the rollout of lateral flow Covid-19 tests to secondary pupils.

“Where are the tests? Who is going to carry them out? Where will they be carried out?” she asked. “We’ve been calling for a testing system for a long time, but the idea that you can suddenly find space to carry out this testing, or the number of people needed to carry it out, is farcical.”

The overwhelming majority of primary pupils will be back at school on January 4
The overwhelming majority of primary pupils will be back at school on January 4

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said secondary school students would be offered testing when they return and regularly afterwards.

Jonathan Lewis, director of education for Cambridgeshire County Council and Peterborough City Council, acknowledged the work schools have been doing over the Christmas break towards reopening.

“Headteachers and their staff at schools across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough have been working extremely hard throughout the Christmas break to put in place measures to reopen schools safely - at the time and in the ways set out by national government and with the support of the education teams in both councils.

“I would like to pay a heartfelt tribute to all of those who have given up a considerable amount of time that they could have been spending with their own families to do this.

“This work has included looking at measures that they have been asked to put in place by government for secondary schools to offer regular rapid testing for pupils and staff.

“Schools are not required to implement testing and it is an optional level of assurance that will work alongside existing protective measures such as bubbles, and we await final guidance on how the mass testing will operate, which we expect in the coming days.

“Planning for this with advice from our public health team is at an advanced stage, to be in place by the time schools return.”

Meanwhile, universities will be asked to reduce the number of students returning to campus at the start of January.

Those who require practical learning to gain their professional qualifications should be prioritised, the education secretary said, with all students offered two rapid coronavirus tests on their return.

The announcement came on the day more areas were told they would be moving into Tier 4 restrictions, and the day that the Oxford University/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine was approved.

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