Students at secondary schools and colleges across England will return to class under a staggered system in January to allow headteachers to roll out mass testing.
Exam-year students will go back to school as normal after the Christmas holidays, but the majority of secondary school pupils are expected to start the term online.
The Department for Education (DfE) confirmed that primary school pupils will go back to class as normal in the new year, alongside vulnerable pupils and key workers’ children with face-to-face education for all students across England to resume on January 11.
All non-exam year groups will be offered full-time remote education during the first week of term and children in special schools and alternative provision will return as planned.
But education unions are concerned about the logistics of setting up a mass testing programme and they have criticised the Government for making a last-minute announcement at the end of term.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “This targeted testing round will clamp down on the virus as students return from the Christmas break and help stop the spread of Covid-19 in the wider community.
“Building on the fantastic actions that schools and colleges have already taken to be as safe as possible, this additional testing will catch those who have the virus but are not showing symptoms to help schools and colleges stay in control of the virus throughout the spring term.”
The announcement comes after Mr Williamson threatened legal action against Greenwich Council after it advised schools to switch to remote education for most pupils in the last week of term.
Schools and colleges will be able to offer students two rapid tests three days apart on the first week of term as part of the rollout of testing.
Testing will be optional but strongly encouraged, particularly in areas of higher prevalence of the virus – consent will be required from the student or parent.
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said the Government’s announcement on the last day of term demonstrated “ministerial panic rather than rational and responsible action.”
The DfE said guidance will be provided to schools and colleges on how to set up and staff testing sites.