On Jan 1, the government announced all primary schools in London would remain closed for the start of the new term, after protests from local authorities in the capital.
This U-turn follows a list of 50 education authorities across the south of England, which would close for the majority of students in London over the first two weeks of the new term.
However, among the 50 education authorities mentioned, a handful of locations with exceptionally high transmission rates were missing. This included the area of Haringey, where local leaders announced they were ready to oppose the government and support any schools who would close for the safety of their students and staff.
After receiving a letter from nine London authorities, Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, held an emergency Cabinet Office meeting on January 1, where he added the final 10 London education authorities to his list of contingency areas.
Other schools around the country may remain closed until the February half-term holiday as the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) advisers warned a lockdown may be insufficient to curb the variant strain of coronavirus.
Minutes from a pre-Christmas meeting of Sage released on December 31 revealed members did not believe a lockdown similar to November’s would keep the R rate below one because of the highly infectious new coronavirus strain.
The news comes after Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, came under fire for the “patchwork” closures of primaries, which meant many schools would remain closed when those in neighbouring boroughs with higher coronavirus rates would be open.
What do tiers mean for schools?
The “overwhelming majority of primary schools are opening as planned” on January 4, Gavin Williamson had said.
However, in a “small number” of Tier 4 areas where infection rates are highest, the Government will implement its contingency plan so that only vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers attend primary schools in person. This now includes all schools in all boroughs across London.
The rules will not apply to everywhere under Tier 4 restrictions and a list of the affected areas, where most children are to continue their education remotely from home, will be published on the gov.uk website. It is also detailed in full further down this article.
Keeping schools open as long as possible “is uppermost in all of our plans,” Mr Williamson had told the Commons.
“The evidence about the new Covid variant and rising infection rates have required some immediate adjustment to our plans for the new term,” he said.
Every school has been instructed to draw up plans to ensure children continue to receive an education even if they have to stay at home.
The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, said that the new rules ensure a “very difficult balance between needing to keep children in education as much as possible, while also ensuring we don’t add upward pressure on the R [rate] and don’t spread the virus any further”.
Which areas are covered by the contingency plan?
The following areas are covered by the government’s contingency plan, which means that primary schools in these areas will only open on Jan 4 for vulnerable children and children of key workers:
- Barking and Dagenham
- Hammersmith and Fulham
- Kensington and Chelsea
- Tower Hamlets
- Waltham Forest
- Epping Forest
- Castle Point
- Southend on Sea
- Tonbridge and Malling
- Tunbridge Wells
- Hastings and Rother
- Milton Keynes
- Three Rivers
- City of London
- Kingston upon Thames
When will secondary schools reopen?
Most secondary school pupils beyond London will stay at home until “at least” January 18, two weeks after term was supposed to start.
From January 11, pupils in Year 11 and Year 13 who are preparing to sit their exams will return to schools.
Secondary schools and colleges will then reopen fully from January 18, after two weeks of mass testing.
“Because the Covid infection rate is particularly high among this age group, we are going to allow more time so that every school and college is able to roll-out testing for all of its pupils and staff,” Mr Williamson said.
“This kind of mass testing will benefit everyone in the community. It will break those chains of transmission.”
How will testing in schools work?
Pupils will return to secondary schools on a staggered basis during the first full three weeks of January. This is to allow for mass Covid testing, in which pupils in Year 11 and Year 13 will be prioritised because of GCSE and A-Level studies.
All secondary schools will set out to test as many pupils and staff as possible as part of the Government’s scheme for mass coronavirus testing.
More than 40,000 volunteers will have to be recruited by secondary schools to mass test their pupils, according to Government documents.