Covid school closures: latest news on the January restrictions

Boris Johnson has said parents should "absolutely" send their children to school on Jan 4 where they are open and that there is "no doubt in my mind that schools are safe." He spoke on the Andrew Marr Show on Jan 3 following another government U-turn, in which all primary schools in London were told to remain closed for the first two weeks of the new term after protests from local authorities. "We want to keep kids in education because that's the best thing for them," the Prime Minister told the BBC.  "Schools are safe, it's very important to stress that. The risk to young people is really very, very small indeed, as the scientists continually attest, the risk to staff is very small and of course the benefits of education are so huge." Education Secretary Gavin Williamson held an emergency Cabinet Office meeting on Jan 1 after eight local authorities sent a letter pointing out that areas with higher transmission rates were missing from a list of 50 education authorities told to close schools. Four national teaching unions have called for the delay to apply to all schools in England amid concerns the new strain of Covid-19 poses a threat to teachers, but Ofsted's chief inspector Amanda Spielman said children's time out of the classroom should be kept to the "absolute minimum". Anne Longfield, the Children's Commissioner for England, echoed Mrs Spielman's sentiments and called for teachers to be vaccinated "as a priority." Some councils have taken matters into their own hands, such as Brighton and Hove City Council, which advised its primary schools to reopen remotely despite government advice. Boris Johnson said: "My message to such councils is that they should be guided by the public health advice, which at the moment is that schools are safe in those areas where we're not being driven by the new variant to close them." Senior government sources have admitted some schools could stay shut until mid-February if Tier 4 restrictions fail. Asked if he would close primary schools if the restrictions could not contain the virus, Mr Johnson said: "We've got to keep things under constant review but we will be driven not by any political considerations but entirely by the public health question." Ministers will review school closures on Jan 18. What do tiers mean for schools? The "overwhelming majority of primary schools are opening as planned" on Jan 4, Gavin Williamson said, but in a "small number" of Tier 4 areas where infection rates are highest, only vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers will attend primary schools in person.   Every school has been instructed to draw up plans to ensure children continue to receive an education even if they have to stay at home. Keeping schools open as long as possible "is uppermost in all of our plans," Mr Williamson had told the Commons. "The evidence about the new Covid variant and rising infection rates have required some immediate adjustment to our plans for the new term," he said. The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, said that the new rules ensure a "very difficult balance between needing to keep children in education as much as possible, while also ensuring we don’t add upward pressure on the R [rate] and don’t spread the virus any further". Read more on the tier system:  Which schools will not open fully?  In the following areas, primary schools will only open for vulnerable children and children of key workers on Jan 4: Barking and Dagenham Barnet Bexley Brent Bromley Croydon Ealing Enfield Hammersmith and Fulham Havering Hillingdon Hounslow Islington Kensington and Chelsea Merton Newham Redbridge Richmond-Upon-Thames Southwark Sutton Tower Hamlets Waltham Forest Wandsworth Westminster Brentwood Epping Forest Castle Point Basildon Rochford Harlow Chelmsford Braintree Maldon Southend on Sea Thurrock Dartford Gravesham Sevenoaks Medway Ashford Maidstone Tonbridge and Malling Tunbridge Wells Swale Hastings and Rother Milton Keynes Watford Broxbourne Hertsmere Three Rivers  Lambeth City of London Hackney Greenwich  Haringey Camden  Kingston upon Thames Lewisham When will secondary schools reopen? Pupils will return to secondary schools on a staggered basis during the first full three weeks of January. This is to allow for mass Covid testing, in which pupils in Year 11 and Year 13 will be prioritised because of GCSE and A-Level studies. This means most secondary school pupils will stay at home until at least Jan 18, when secondary schools and colleges will reopen fully after two weeks of mass testing - two weeks after term was supposed to start. "Because the Covid infection rate is particularly high among this age group, we are going to allow more time so that every school and college is able to roll-out testing for all of its pupils and staff," Mr Williamson said. "This kind of mass testing will benefit everyone in the community. It will break those chains of transmission." How will testing in schools work? All secondary schools will set out to test as many pup

Covid school closures: latest news on the January restrictions

Boris Johnson has said parents should "absolutely" send their children to school on Jan 4 where they are open and that there is "no doubt in my mind that schools are safe."

He spoke on the Andrew Marr Show on Jan 3 following another government U-turn, in which all primary schools in London were told to remain closed for the first two weeks of the new term after protests from local authorities.

"We want to keep kids in education because that's the best thing for them," the Prime Minister told the BBC. 

"Schools are safe, it's very important to stress that. The risk to young people is really very, very small indeed, as the scientists continually attest, the risk to staff is very small and of course the benefits of education are so huge."

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson held an emergency Cabinet Office meeting on Jan 1 after eight local authorities sent a letter pointing out that areas with higher transmission rates were missing from a list of 50 education authorities told to close schools.

Four national teaching unions have called for the delay to apply to all schools in England amid concerns the new strain of Covid-19 poses a threat to teachers, but Ofsted's chief inspector Amanda Spielman said children's time out of the classroom should be kept to the "absolute minimum".

Anne Longfield, the Children's Commissioner for England, echoed Mrs Spielman's sentiments and called for teachers to be vaccinated "as a priority."

Some councils have taken matters into their own hands, such as Brighton and Hove City Council, which advised its primary schools to reopen remotely despite government advice.

Boris Johnson said: "My message to such councils is that they should be guided by the public health advice, which at the moment is that schools are safe in those areas where we're not being driven by the new variant to close them."

Senior government sources have admitted some schools could stay shut until mid-February if Tier 4 restrictions fail.

Asked if he would close primary schools if the restrictions could not contain the virus, Mr Johnson said: "We've got to keep things under constant review but we will be driven not by any political considerations but entirely by the public health question."

Ministers will review school closures on Jan 18.

What do tiers mean for schools?

The "overwhelming majority of primary schools are opening as planned" on Jan 4, Gavin Williamson said, but in a "small number" of Tier 4 areas where infection rates are highest, only vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers will attend primary schools in person.  

Every school has been instructed to draw up plans to ensure children continue to receive an education even if they have to stay at home.

Keeping schools open as long as possible "is uppermost in all of our plans," Mr Williamson had told the Commons.

"The evidence about the new Covid variant and rising infection rates have required some immediate adjustment to our plans for the new term," he said.

The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, said that the new rules ensure a "very difficult balance between needing to keep children in education as much as possible, while also ensuring we don’t add upward pressure on the R [rate] and don’t spread the virus any further".

Read more on the tier system: 

Which schools will not open fully? 

In the following areas, primary schools will only open for vulnerable children and children of key workers on Jan 4:

  • Barking and Dagenham
  • Barnet
  • Bexley
  • Brent
  • Bromley
  • Croydon
  • Ealing
  • Enfield
  • Hammersmith and Fulham
  • Havering
  • Hillingdon
  • Hounslow
  • Islington
  • Kensington and Chelsea
  • Merton
  • Newham
  • Redbridge
  • Richmond-Upon-Thames
  • Southwark
  • Sutton
  • Tower Hamlets
  • Waltham Forest
  • Wandsworth
  • Westminster
  • Brentwood
  • Epping Forest
  • Castle Point
  • Basildon
  • Rochford
  • Harlow
  • Chelmsford
  • Braintree
  • Maldon
  • Southend on Sea
  • Thurrock
  • Dartford
  • Gravesham
  • Sevenoaks
  • Medway
  • Ashford
  • Maidstone
  • Tonbridge and Malling
  • Tunbridge Wells
  • Swale
  • Hastings and Rother
  • Milton Keynes
  • Watford
  • Broxbourne
  • Hertsmere
  • Three Rivers
  •  Lambeth
  • City of London
  • Hackney
  • Greenwich 
  • Haringey
  • Camden 
  • Kingston upon Thames
  • Lewisham

When will secondary schools reopen?

Pupils will return to secondary schools on a staggered basis during the first full three weeks of January. This is to allow for mass Covid testing, in which pupils in Year 11 and Year 13 will be prioritised because of GCSE and A-Level studies.

This means most secondary school pupils will stay at home until at least Jan 18, when secondary schools and colleges will reopen fully after two weeks of mass testing - two weeks after term was supposed to start.

"Because the Covid infection rate is particularly high among this age group, we are going to allow more time so that every school and college is able to roll-out testing for all of its pupils and staff," Mr Williamson said.

"This kind of mass testing will benefit everyone in the community. It will break those chains of transmission."

How will testing in schools work?

All secondary schools will set out to test as many pupils and staff as possible as part of the Government's scheme for mass coronavirus testing

More than 40,000 volunteers will have to be recruited by secondary schools to mass test their pupils, according to Government documents.

Testing will be supported by 1,500 Army personnel who will help deliver the tests to schools and provide webinar training, but it is up to head teachers to recruit parents and governor volunteers, or advertise for contract workers.

Schools will employ lateral flow tests, which produce results in 30 minutes, and in the case of a positive result a second sample will be sent to a laboratory for confirmation.

Primary school testing will be introduced in due course, ministers have suggested.

Social distancing and ‘bubbles’

When schools reopened in September the Government published 25,000 words of guidance explaining how school children and staff should be kept safe.

So-called “bubbles have been created so youngsters learn and mix with fellow pupils. Large assemblies or collective worship should not include more than one group. Break and lunch times can be staggered to keep bubbles apart. Ensuring these “distinct groups do not mix” makes it quicker and easier to identify contacts if a positive coronavirus case emerges or someone has symptoms.

The bubbles can be larger, increasing to whole “year bubbles”, if teaching demands require it. Books, games and shared equipment can be used within that group, but must be cleaned if then used by another bubble.

Older children will be encouraged to avoid close contact with one another, in part because risks increase with age. Teachers are not restricted to a single bubble, but are urged to stay at the front of any classroom to reduce contact. In class, pupils must sit spaced out side-by-side and facing forward.

The use of the staff room by teachers is also meant to be “minimised”. 

If a pupil or teacher has symptoms or a positive diagnosis

Schools must contact local health protection teams immediately so those in close contact with the child can be traced. Currently, pupils in a bubble, year group and very rarely the entire school could be asked to self-isolate. A mobile testing unit could be sent to a campus. 

Schools will be offered "serial testing" of close contacts of staff and pupils who test positive to negate the need for entire year groups to self-isolate at home.

NHS Test and Trace would be informed, and the pupil or teacher would be quarantined for 14 days and tested. If a child with symptoms is waiting to be collected by a parent, he or she should be moved to a room to isolate.

Teachers who help a child with symptoms do not have to self-isolate unless they develop symptoms themselves. However, they should thoroughly wash their hands and wear PPE while with the child. The area where someone suspected of having Covid-19 has been must then be intensively cleaned.

If a parent insists a child with symptoms should attend school, the headteacher can refuse to take the pupil if they believe there is a threat to others.

Do children need to wear face coverings during class?

A school pupil wearing a face mask on a bus Credit: Owen Humphreys/PA

Although guidelines do not recommend the universal use of face coverings, each school can decide whether pupils above Year 7, teachers and visitors should wear them when in corridors and communal areas, where passing briefly is deemed a “low risk”. They will not be worn in class. 

A school supply of masks is also recommended for youngsters spotted wearing old or damp ones. Primary school children are not required to wear them.

Hygiene and cleaning

The guidance insists a “robust hand and respiratory hygiene” regime is in place, with children encouraged to clean their hands when they arrive at school, return from breaks, use bathrooms, change classrooms and before eating. Hand sanitiser stations should be commonplace, with possible supervision “given risks around ingestion”.

Staff will also supply and promote the use of tissues as part of the “catch it, bin it, kill it” technique to control germs.

“Enhanced cleaning” regimes will be introduced in which surfaces students touch regularly, such as desks, door handles, books and playground apparatus are cleaned with bleach and detergents.

Toilets should also be cleaned regularly. Pupils must limit equipment they bring to school, carrying in bags just essentials “such as lunch boxes, hats, coats, books, stationery and mobile phones”.