Concerns have been raised over a “big bang” reopening for schools under which all students will be allowed to return in two weeks’ time, which Boris Johnson has confirmed as the first step in easing England’s lockdown.
Education unions had called for a “safe and sustainable” approach and warned it will be “reckless” to bring all pupils back en masse.
However Mr Johnson confirmed plans for all pupils in England to return on 8 March as he set out a roadmap for easing the country’s lockdown on Monday afternoon.
Along with outdoor activities, schools – which moved online to all but vulnerable and key worker children in early January – will be the first in line for a return.
The teachers’ union NASUWT said the government had failed to demonstrate that its plans will not compromise the safety of teachers, staff or pupils.
“Re-opening schools and colleges fully on 8 March is one thing; keeping them open and preventing the need for further national restrictions is quite another,” said the union’s general secretary Patrick Roach.
“The government’s failure to demonstrate that it has taken full account of the scientific evidence to support its decision on full reopening risks undermining the confidence of the public and those working in schools and colleges.
“It is vital that the government recognises that it has already lost the trust of many teachers and needs to do much more to win the confidence of a profession that has continued, throughout the pandemic, to deliver everything that has been asked of them.”
The union also said it was “hugely regrettable and frustrating” that teachers had not been given priority in the vaccination programme.
“Vaccinating education staff would send a clear message that the government is taking seriously the concerns of the profession and demonstrating a genuine commitment to limiting the risk of further disruption to children’s education,” said Mr Roach.
“Vaccinating education staff can be done now if there is the political will to do so. There is simply no excuse and no reason to not do so.”
Geoff Barton from the Association for School and College Leaders (ASCL) said while his union shared the government’s goal to bring all children back onsite as soon as possible, it was concerned the decision “may prove counterproductive and lead to more disruption”.
He said it was “difficult to understand” why England’s approach “is so different” than plans in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, who have opted for a phased return to school.
“We fear that England’s less cautious approach runs the risk of increasing the rate of infection and prolonging the damaging cycle of stop-start schooling, and we will be studying the data carefully to understand the rationale for this decision,” he said.
As well as announcing the full return on 8 March, the government confirmed new measures for schools to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission, including advice for secondary school pupils in England to wear masks in classrooms for the initial weeks after reopening.
Secondary school and college students will be tested for Covid-19 four times over the first two weeks of term and they will then be asked to carry out the rapid coronavirus tests at home twice a week.
The return of students in secondary schools and colleges could end up staggered due to the logistics of mass testing.
Before the prime minister confirmed plans for a full return on Monday, unions and teachers had expressed concerns over the prospect of all students going back to school on 8 March amid speculation.
Paul Whiteman from the school leaders’ union NAHT had called for a “cautious plan for a sustainable return” that would reduce the risk of further disruption to education.
“A third lockdown for schools would be more devastating than taking our time now,” he said. “The government’s task today is to reassure both families and the profession that they have a sound scientific basis for their approach, and a well thought through plan for how schools will reopen safely to all.”
Matthew Davies, a headteacher, told The Independent he was “concerned” at the prospect of a full wider reopening to all pupils towards the start of next month.
“I was hoping to see a gradual increase in pupils numbers from 8 March coupled with additional measures in place to support school leaders,” he said.
John Jolly, chief executive of charity Parentkind, said many parents were keen for their children to return to school, but that “safety comes first”.
“There remains some way to go to reassure parents,” he said. “Before returning their child to the classroom, parents need to feel confident that schools are safe for them, their children and others in their social bubbles when it comes to the spread of the virus.”
Before details were announced on Monday, Andy Byers, a secondary school headteacher in Durham, said he was eager to return to school as soon as possible, but concerned at how plans for testing students would work.
“I am concerned about testing students and want to learn more because it will be impossible for many schools to test that many students in such a short period of time,” Mr Byers told The Independent.
Ian McNeilly, the chief executive of the de Ferrers Trust, which runs seven schools across Staffordshire and Derbyshire, also said: “I suspect that secondary schools will stagger the return of pupils in the week beginning 8 March as it will be difficult to get through a testing programme for pupils if they all return on the Monday.”
Another academy trust leader, Lucy Heller, told BBC’s Today programme on Monday she would like to see “some movement on early vaccines” for frontline staff – including those in schools – ahead of the 8 March.
Meanwhile, Labour’s leader Sir Keir Starmer told LBC it was "frustrating" that the government did not use half-term to vaccinate teachers and school staff.
The GMB union, which represents school support staff, called for school workers to be vaccinated “as soon as possible”, and for the government should fund additional safety measures.
Mr Johnson has said the roadmap – which he revealed to parliament on Monday – would bring England out of lockdown “cautiously”.
“Our priority has always been getting children back into school which we know is crucial for their education and wellbeing,” he tweeted ahead of his speech. “We’ll also be prioritising ways for people to reunite with loved ones safely.”
Russell Viner, professor of adolescent health at UCL, said it is “plausible” that schools in England can fully reopen on 8 March while keeping the pandemic under control - if the lockdown is maintained for other parts of society and the rapid vaccine rollout continues.
He said: “Schools should be the first part of society to reopen after lockdown. The risks of not reopening schools are high.”
Prof Viner added: “Schools undoubtedly play a role in transmission of this pandemic, particularly secondary schools. Yet the evidence suggests that transmission can be very much reduced when effective control measures are used in schools.”
Additional reporting by Press Association