Matt Hancock refuses to rule out closing schools in January as union calls for online learning

Teaching union says enforcing home learning for two weeks after school holidays ‘the right thing to do’

<p>The health secretary said he wouldn’t rule out closing schools in January</p>

The health secretary said he wouldn’t rule out closing schools in January

Health secretary Matt Hancock has refused to rule out closing schools in parts of England under the toughest coronavirus restrictions as the government battles to bring a new strain of the disease under control.

Union leaders have already called for pupils not to be sent back to the classroom until the third week of January after the Christmas break, with the leader of the National Education Union saying this “would be the right thing to do”.

Asked on Sunday morning whether he could guarantee that schools in Tier 4 would not be closed, like they were across the country during the first lockdown, Mr Hancock said: “I’ve learned not to rule anything out in this pandemic”.

In an appearance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme he added: “But the plan is for schools to open with the staggered start that we have described”.

It comes after Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the return of secondary schools in the new year should be delayed to give time for infection rates to fall.

"Delaying secondary school opening until January 18 would be the right thing to do. The latest figures show that the highest rates of infection are now among secondary schoolchildren," he told The Times.

The latest official data shows more than one in 40 secondary pupils have tested positive, according to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics, along with one in 50 primary pupils.

The Children’s Commissioner warned earlier this week however that keeping schools closed for longer in January would also be a “mistake” and would mean sacrificing children’s learning and wellbeing in order to prioritise other sectors of society such as gyms and shops.  

“It would also be a choice rather than an inevitability, and one that does not put children first,” a report on her website stated.

The call for a delay on reopening schools after Christmas adds to pressure on ministers, who have been seeking mass Covid testing of secondary pupils when schools go back after Christmas.

Teachers condemned these plans earlier this week, lamenting the “rushed and poorly thought-through” timing of the announcement which they say represents “an enormous disrespect for the profession”.

School leaders and headteachers were still waiting on Friday for more guidance – despite many schools having broken up for Christmas – over exactly how testing will work and templates for parental consent letters, both of which are expected to come out next week.

Unions branded the testing scheme undeliverable and have told teachers not to work on it over the holiday.

The government has announced that a million laptops would go to families who needed them for their children to take online lessons. More than half a million have already been handed out and it is said the rest will be available within 48 hours of a school request.

Teaching unions reportedly met Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, yesterday afternoon.

Under the government's plan, announced last Thursday, the return of secondary school pupils to class would be delayed by a week in England until January 11 and replaced by online lessons so that schools could use lateral flow tests on all pupils.

The children would be offered two tests in the first week of term, with any positive results confirmed by a lab-based test.

A Department for Education spokesperson said:  “Testing on this scale means more children, teachers and staff can stay in their schools and colleges without the need to self-isolate.  

“Schools and colleges taking part in asymptomatic testing will help identify positive cases, break chains of transmission and reassure parents and teachers about returning to school and college for the spring term.  

“We do not underestimate the challenges involved and scale of delivering this, which is why a cross-government operation is being mobilised to support schools and colleges.”

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