Schools could remain shut until after the Easter holidays unless virus cases fall dramatically in the coming weeks, it was feared last night.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson yesterday said he still hoped schools might be able to return after the February half-term.
But with Covid cases still at high levels, Downing Street refused to be drawn on the likely restart for millions of children stuck trying to learn from home.
And a government source acknowledged it was becoming 'increasingly difficult' to see how schools could be reopened next month, given the state of the pandemic.
Schools could remain shut until after the Easter holidays unless virus cases fall dramatically in the coming weeks, it was feared last night
During a round of media interviews yesterday, Mr Williamson insisted there would be no repeat of the shambolic episode at the start of this month when schools were ordered to close just one day after returning from the Christmas break.
He said schools would get at least two weeks' notice of any order to reopen – suggesting that ministers will have to decide by February 8 whether classrooms will reopen for the start of the second half of the spring term on February 22.
Although Boris Johnson has prioritised the early reopening of schools, government scientists have warned that a return to the classroom could trigger another sharp spike.
'We have to be realistic about the situation we are in and the impact reopening schools might have,' a source told the Mail.
Dr Mary Bousted, of the National Education Union, said: 'After the chaos and confusion that government incompetence over school opening and closure has created, it is good we now have an assurance from Gavin Williamson that school staff will be given two weeks' notice before reopening.
'The last thing that parents and children need now is a stop-start approach. We all want schools to be open, but they must be opened when it is safe to do so, and when the conditions are right to keep schools open sustainably.'
Education Secretary Gavin Williams said schools would get at least two weeks' notice of any order to reopen
Any delays will pile pressure on Mr Williamson to ensure high quality education is available to all those children forced to stay at home.
He said a further 1.3 million laptops, tablets and routers would be distributed to those in need in the coming weeks to widen access to online learning, providing the 'ultimate safety net' for disadvantaged pupils.
He added that he had 'made it clear to schools' what was the 'absolute minimum' they were expected to provide.
Mr Williamson said he wanted to get pupils back in the classroom at the 'earliest possible opportunity', adding: 'I would certainly hope that that would be before Easter.'
Downing Street confirmed that Mr Johnson wanted schools to reopen as quickly as possible but refused to be drawn on when that would be.
'If we can open them up before Easter we obviously will do but that is determined by the latest scientific evidence and data,' the Prime Minister's official spokesman said.