Secondary schools across England will be closed to pupils for the first week of term and both primaries and secondaries in the areas worst affected by Covid will be closed for longer, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has confirmed.
In a statement to parliament, Williamson revealed that schools in areas with very high rates of transmission would only allow vulnerable children and children of key workers to return initially, with the rest receiving remote teaching for much of January.
In other areas, students taking exams mainly in years 11 and 13 would be allowed back from 11 January, with all year groups back in school from 18 January.
Williamson said details of which areas would be most affected by closures would be announced by the government shortly.
The statement means that millions of university, college and school students in England will face delays in returning to in-person classes in the new year, with some undergraduates not returning until February.
Williamson, is gave a statement to parliament on Wednesday confirming plans including a sharp reduction in the numbers of university students eligible to return to campus in the first weeks of January, and more rigorous testing requirements.
Secondary school pupils will not return to their classrooms in the week beginning 4 January, with most expected to have an extended holiday. Those taking exams such as A-levels, BTecs and GCSEs will initially have online or remote lessons while schools and colleges carry out mass testing of their students, and return to school from 18 January.
But school reopenings and closures will vary according to regional tiers, creating a confusing tangle of dates and year groups for parents and school leaders.
According to reports in the Sun, there will be longer delays for pupils based on the tiers they live in, with both primary and secondary schools in the worst-affected tier 4 “hotspots” to close to most pupils for two weeks. Primary schools in tiers 3 and below will open as normal, while secondary schools will be closed to most in-person teaching until 18 January.
Williamson will announce that only about one in five higher education students will be able to return to campuses in England before 18 January. The return will be restricted to those on clinical or lab-based courses such as medicine and nursing, as well as those in teacher training.
The change means hundreds of thousands of students who would have been eligible – those studying for degrees with practical elements such as architecture, design or performing arts – will no longer be included in the first group back.
The government is to review the second and subsequent waves of higher education students due to return on 18 and 25 January and 1 February, with those decisions linked to the status of the regional tiers to which students and institutions belong.
Williamson will underline that university students will be expected to show they have taken recent Covid tests with negative results before being allowed to use campus facilities or receive in-person teaching. Those who cannot obtain tests will need to self-isolate for 10 days.
The delay of school pupils and college students has been the subject of strenuous debate within the government, after its scientific advisers made a case for all schools, including primaries, to teach remotely throughout January in order to bring down infection rates.
A survey of parents of school-age children conducted by the Parent Ping app found 54% agreed that the start of term should be delayed, while others wanted the delay to apply only to secondary schools or those in tier 4 areas. Only 5% disagreed with any delay.
More than four in five (81%) of the 575 parents who responded to the survey on Tuesday said they believed it was “very likely” or “quite likely” that they would have to homeschool their children in 2021.
Karen Wespieser, of Parent Ping, said: “This is obviously a fast-moving situation. When we asked the same question before Christmas, far more parents thought schools should open as normal. But most parents are now prepared, perhaps reluctantly, to have to do some sort of home schooling again.”