Schools could open before Easter, Gavin Williamson has suggested, saying he will give a two-week warning to headteachers.
The Education Secretary said he "would certainly hope" that children would be back in the classroom by early April, adding that he wants this to happen at the "earliest possible opportunity".
It is the first time Mr Williamson has hinted at a possible timeline for the reopening of schools, and comes after Dr Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer, suggested schools in some parts of the country will reopen sooner than those in others.
Primary and secondary schools were ordered to close at the start of the month to all but the children of key workers and the most vulnerable youngsters. Announcing the latest national lockdown on January 4, Boris Johnson said schools would need to remain shut until the February half-term at the earliest.
On Thursday, Mr Williamson said a key factor in determining when schools could reopen would be whether pressures on the NHS had eased sufficiently.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that headteachers will be given "absolutely proper notice" about when they need to prepare to reopen, adding that a "clear two-week notice period" will be factored in so schools have time to prepare for pupils' return.
"Schools were the last to close, schools will be the first to open," the Education Secretary said. "I want to see that as soon as the scientific and health advice is there to open at the earliest possible stage, and I would certainly hope that that would be before Easter.
"Any decision to reopen schools to all children – as all decisions in terms of schools – will be based on the best health advice and the best scientific advice."
Watch: Williamson - Two weeks' notice before schools open
Mr Williamson also said he hoped a programme of daily coronavirus tests in secondary schools and colleges as an alternative to self-isolation would be able to resume. Under the scheme, pupils and staff who were in close contact with someone who has tested positive would be tested for seven days and would be allowed to remain in school if the test was negative.
"They wanted to look at more detail as to how that was working with the new variant. We very much hope that we will be able to restart that programme that worked so well," Mr Williamson said.
Headteachers reacted angrily to the suggestion that schools may remain closed beyond February half-term.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, said: "Families and school leaders alike, who want to see disruption to pupils' learning kept to an absolute minimum, will be very frustrated that restricted access to school looks set to continue beyond half-term."
Earlier this week, Dr Harries said not all schools will be able to open after the February half-term because Covid infection rates needed to be "observed and reviewed" over the coming weeks. While it remains the "ambition" that schools open next month, she warned that the country has recently seen very high virus infection rates.
Her comments were echoed by the chief scientific adviser to the Department for Education, who said the Government will "continue to monitor" the situation and the "balance of risks" involved with children returning to school.
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