Secondary schools ‘to stay closed for an extra week’ as Covid cases spiral

Secondary schools may stay shut until January 11 (Picture: AFP)

Boris Johnson will reportedly delay the reopening of secondary schools by a week in a bid to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Pupils studying for GCSEs and A-levels will no longer go back to school on January 4 as previously intended, with the new term set to begin remotely instead.

Students will have to wait until at least January 11 to return to the classroom, and only on the condition they receive a negative Covid test, according to TES

The website reports that while primary schools will reopen from next week, secondaries will open only to vulnerable students or children of key workers, giving schools more room to set up mass testing.   

Year 11 and Year 13 students will be given priority for the tests so they can go back to school from January 11, with all other secondary school pupils set to go back from January 18.

The plan is said to have been agreed by ministers on Monday but is yet to have final Downing Street approval.

Boris Johnson is under pressure to keep all students at home throughout January as mutant strains of coronavirus spread across the UK.

Boris Johnson is facing pressure to keep schools closed (Picture: Reuters)

Education chiefs, scientists and ministers have warned that reopening schools could cause infection rates to spiral, with the new variants said to be more transmissible among young people.

The Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) is understood to have advised Mr Johnson to impose tougher measures than those rolled out in November’s lockdown, warning that it would be impossible to keep the R rate below 1 if schools reopen this month.

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 planned school reopenings from next week may have to be postponed.

He told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme: ‘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.’

The Government said it is ‘still planning for a staggered opening of schools’ after Christmas but is keeping the plan 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.

Today it was announced that the military will give remote support to secondary schools and colleges in England setting up mass Covid testing as the new term begins.

But unions and head teachers say they still need more support and have called for the reopening of schools to be delayed by at least two weeks.

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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.’

Boris Johnson is said to be holding crisis talks with ministers tonight on the tier system and what to do about schools, with some urging him to keep them open.

Robert Halfon, chair of the Education Select Committee today demanded England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance publish the data being used to pressure Boris Johnson into shutting schools until February.

He warned that closing schools again could spark an ‘epidemic of educational poverty’ in Britain, with some pupils now 15 to 22 months behind.

It comes as a record 53,000 people test positive for coronavirus, fuelling calls for a third national lockdown to be imposed.

The Department for Education has been contacted for comment.

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