COVID-19: Secondary schools in England told to stagger pupils' return in January

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The reopening of secondary schools and colleges in England after Christmas will not be delayed - but will be staggered, the government has said.

Those studying for exams are expected to return as normal in January, but most pupils will start the year online, to allow mass testing to be rolled out at the start of term.

Primary school pupils will go back to school as normal in January, alongside vulnerable pupils and key workers' children.

Two rapid tests will be offered to those students attending classes, at three days apart, with positive results confirmed by a lab-based PCR test.

Those with a positive test will be required to self-isolate in line with existing regulations.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: "This targeted testing round will clamp down on the virus as students return from the Christmas break and help stop the spread of COVID-19 in the wider community.

"Building on the fantastic actions that schools and colleges have already taken to be as safe as possible, this additional testing will catch those who have the virus but are not showing symptoms to help schools and colleges stay in control of the virus throughout the spring term.

"The new programme of daily testing for close contacts of those with confirmed cases of the virus will also mean we can keep more pupils in school, the best place for their development and wellbeing. Over the rest of the academic year and in the run up to exams, it will remain a national priority to keep education open for all, while keeping schools as safe as possible."

Talking about the plans, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer told reporters: "I think schools are going to be really frustrated this has come at the last moment.

"What we needed for schools was a plan that started last September and what we have had is one problem after another all through to the Christmas period."

Teaching unions also reacted to the news, and Dr Mary Bousted of the National Education Union (NEU) said the announcement "demonstrates ministerial panic rather than rational and responsible action in response to the exponential rise in COVID-19 infection rates amongst secondary school pupils".

She added: "We are writing to Gavin Williamson today with a series of urgent questions about today's announcement."

It comes after Susan Acland-Hood, permanent secretary at the Department for Education (DfE), earlier told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that the DfE did not have "any plans to lengthen the Christmas holiday".

Chairwoman of the PAC, Meg Hillier, said it was "ludicrous" that in the final days of term, many parents and headteachers did not know what would be happening when schools return in a few weeks.

A small study released earlier suggested that more than half of English schools surveyed had at least one COVID-19 infection in the last month, with only 1.24% of pupils testing positive and 1.29% of staff.

Dr Shamez Ladhani, a Public Health England consultant epidemiologist who led the survey of 105 schools, said that the early findings from the small study suggests the proportion of positive tests among staff and students mirrors the general population.