A decision on how and when students will return to school in the new year is now not due to be made until after Christmas, after a key meeting involving the Department for Education and the prime minister was postponed today, Tes understands.
The government is understood to be considering whether it needs to delay students' return to school in January amid concerns over rising Covid cases.
The prime minister told a press conference earlier this week that the aim was to open secondary schools in a staggered way at the beginning of January, as has already been announced. But he said this was being kept under constant review as the government "followed the path of the pandemic".
Tes understands that the issue of when schools return was due to be discussed in key government talks today, but that a meeting involving prime minister Boris Johnson has now been delayed until after Christmas.
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Labour shadow education secretary Kate Green and shadow schools minister Wes Streeting have called on education secretary Gavin Williamson to answer questions about when students will return and urged the government to provide the evidence it has about the spread of the new variant of the virus among young people.
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There is also controversy surrounding the government's plans to introduce rapid mass Covid testing in secondary schools from the beginning of next term.
According to government sources, a meeting was due to be held tonight in which tier restrictions, the reopening of schools and the economic impact of the pandemic would be discussed.
The DfE is understood to be keen to stick to its plan for a staggered start in January, but is also considering delaying the return of students until 18 January.
The Daily Telegraph reported this week that ministers are considering keeping schools closed for all of January amid fears that the new Covid strain is spreading faster among children.
A source told Tes that this is an option being looked at, but that "nobody within the Department for Education wants that".
A separate source close to the department said that there were two camps within the DfE, with one wanting to delay a decision to see what happens with Covid case numbers over the holidays.
They said: "A final decision has not been made yet. I think there are basically two camps. One which thinks we should wait to see what happens with case numbers over Christmas time because over the two weeks it could resolve itself, and then another camp which thinks that this will not resolve itself over two weeks, that the situation could get worse and that a decision needs be made to move schools online.
"I think the lead option will be two to three weeks of schools being online while schools are getting this mass testing set up."
A government spokesperson said: “We want all pupils to return in January as school is the best place for their development and mental health, but, as the prime minister has said, it is right that we follow the path of the pandemic and keep our approach under constant review.
“Our huge expansion of rapid testing will support secondary schools and colleges to stay open to all pupils and reduce the risk of transmission within local communities.”