The education secretary’s remarks came after Boris Johnson announced the return of all schools on 8 March in England, unveiling plans for twice-weekly rapid home testing for all secondary and college pupils.
Initially, students will be asked to use lateral flow devices onsite when they return — and if they test negative, they will be allowed to resume face-to-face classes. In total pupils will be asked to take three tests on return before being requested to start using testing kits at home.
“As you see in the guidance it says explicitly they’ll be three Covid tests over a two-week period for secondary school pupils,” Mr Williamson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“Schools will be able to bring year groups in from 8 March, depending on their capacity as to how they are best able to do that. They’ve got a week to bring all those pupils back so they can be tested during that week.
Pressed on whether all pupils would be back on 8 March — the date in the government’s roadmap for the return to face-to-face teaching — the education secretary replied: “All schools are open, back on 8 March.
“Schools will, if they think they’ve got the capacity to get all the pupils through by the 8 March, of course they can have them all there. All primary schools will be coming back on 8 March as well.”
He added: “What we are doing is supporting schools. But we do recognise it is a big logistical task and as soon as these three tests have been completed then children will be getting their home testing kits so that they are able to take those kits home in order to do a test on themselves having learnt how to do it with the supervision of adults during that first two-week period.”
Earlier this week, the Association of School and College Leavers said the return may need to be staggered over two weeks due to the “huge logistical challenge” presented by administering Covid tests onsite.
Julie McCulloch, the director of policy at the organisation, told The Times: “We think it is extremely unlikely that there will be secondary schools able to welcome back all their pupils on 8 March. Testing all secondary school pupils three times onsite is a huge logistical challenge.
“Without significant extra support some schools and colleges may need longer than a week to enable all students to be tested prior to returning to the classroom. We expect the government to show a spirit of understanding, particularly as it has handed schools and colleges the job of carrying out a medical task with very little support.”
Mr Williamson also said on Wednesday that the policy of advising all secondary and college pupils to wear face masks on school premises, including inside classrooms, will be reviewed over Easter.
“We’re reviewing that at the Easter holidays to see if that has had a positive impact, and the impact that Public Health England would feel is right, or whether it’s going to continue to necessary,” Mr Williamson said.
However, he declined to rule out the possibility of the advice being in place until 21 June — the final date in the government’s roadmap to easing restrictions and when the majority of measures are set to be scrapped.
The roadmap to easing restrictions — published on Monday — said: “The government recommends that the use of face coverings in higher education, further education and secondary schools is extended for a limited period to all indoor environments – including classrooms – unless 2m social distancing can be maintained.”
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