Schools are to find out when they can reopen ‘within days,’ Education Minister Nick Gibb said.
He told MPs: ‘The Government recognises that headteachers, teachers, support staff and parents and carers need time to prepare for reopening.
‘That’s why (Education Secretary Gavin Williamson) made it clear we will give two weeks’ notice to schools colleges and universities so they can prepare for a return to face to face education.
‘We want to give notice so parents can get notice for the care of their children, and we will be making an announcement in the next few days.’
Mr Gibb said a decision about when and how schools can reopen will be based on public health data and guided by scientific evidence, hospitalisation rates, the rate of vaccination and the challenge of new variants.
‘Ultimately it was the pressure on the NHS that caused us to move into a national lockdown and the Government is monitoring NHS capacity carefully as it reviews whether easing lockdown might be possible,’ he said.
He added that the reopening of schools will be prioritised at the start of the process for lifting lockdown restrictions.
He said: ‘It is the Government’s strong desire to reopen all schools, colleges and universities as soon as possible.
‘We will prioritise the reopening of schools as we begin the process of lifting lockdown restrictions.
‘We are acutely aware of the damage to children’s education and development, particularly to the most disadvantaged pupils by being away from school and of the increased burdens that are placed on parents.’
It comes after reports suggested pupils could continue learning from home until after Easter.
A Government source said the nation will remain in the current homeschooling set-up ‘for the long haul’ amid fears over new Covid variants.
The UK mutation that emerged in Kent last year is believed to be up to 70% more infectious and 30% more deadly than the original strain.
The source told The Times: ‘We are going to start giving parents more information so they can start managing their expectations.
‘Although we have not arrived at an exact date when we think schools will go back, it will not be after half-term.’
When the third national lockdown was initially announced, Boris Johnson said schools would stay shut until at least mid-February.
But education leaders are in broad agreement that schools will not be able to reopen until Spring.
Kevin Courtney, co-general secretary of the National Education Union, said after Easter was an ‘optimistic’ date.
And founder of the Oasis academy trust Steve Chalke said that schools would not be able to ‘reopen fully’ after February half-term, noting that it may be possible after Easter.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has previously said that he hoped schools would be able to welcome pupils back before the Easter holidays – but said he couldn’t guarantee this would happen.
A No 10 source said scientists were in favour of pushing back the return date as far as possible. They added: ‘One thing is for sure — we will not risk coming out of this lockdown if there is any risk that we will be plunged into another.’
But delaying the reopening of schools will not go down well with some Conservative backbenchers who are warning about the mental health impact of closures.
Robert Halfon, Tory chairman of the Education Select Committee, raised concern about high levels of anxiety, depression and self-harm among children due to school closures.
He backed a regional reopening approach, telling the Commons: ‘We just need to get our schools open again sooner rather than later. Why not open schools and colleges in the areas where Covid cases and the R (rate) is significantly lower?’
Tory MP Siobhan Baillie said parents were contacting her on Instagram to say they were struggling.
‘I hope the backbenchers get louder on this point as it’s more important than ever,’ she said.
‘We need to hear about my Stroud dad who contacted me because he is so desperately worried about the mental health of his children being at home all day, and the parents that are contacting me on Instagram – Instagram is for pictures of cats – and they are absolutely at their wits’ end about juggling childcare and work as well.’
Mr Gibb said the mental health of pupils, parents and school staff is taken ‘very seriously’, adding: ‘At every step we will be led by the scientific advice about when it is safe to reopen schools.’
He said ‘no-one is keener’ than him to see ‘all schools back and open to all children and young people’.
He did not rule out a regional approach, but responding to that question simply said: ‘We will always be led by the science when making decisions about moving away from the lockdown conditions.’
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