Education secretary Gavin Williamson admitted that secondary pupils were among the age groups with the highest rates of infection © Oli Scarff/AFP

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The UK government has postponed the reopening of secondary schools in England because of a sharp rise in coronavirus cases.

Secondary schools will reopen on January 11 for those taking GCSE and A-level exams next summer, rather than on January 4. Other pupils will study at home until January 18 to give teachers time to set up a mass testing programme.

Primary and secondary schools in areas with the highest rates of the virus will be open only to vulnerable children and those of essential workers until at least January 18.

These include: 22 of the 32 London boroughs; much of Kent and Essex; parts of Hertfordshire including Watford; Milton Keynes; and Hastings and Rother in East Sussex.

In other areas, primary schools will reopen to all pupils on January 4.

The late change is a blow to the government’s aim of keeping as many children in school as possible during the pandemic.

Gavin Williamson, education secretary, said the decision was “a last resort”.

“We know how vitally important it is for younger children to be in school for their education, wellbeing and wider development,” he said. But he admitted that secondary pupils were among the age groups with the highest rates of infection.

Mr Williamson also asked universities to reduce the number of students returning before January 25, prioritising those who need practical learning as part of their degrees such as medical students. He added that students should be offered two rapid tests when they return.

Scientists have urged the closure of all secondary schools until February to stem the rise in infections.

Mr Williamson said mass rapid testing would reduce the number of children and staff who had to self-isolate after contact with positive cases.

The education secretary also pledged that the government would distribute 100,000 laptops and other devices to schools in January to help support remote learning. However, many headteachers say repeated promises to provide laptops have been broken. 

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, the headteachers’ union, questioned whether primary schools pupils should return to the classroom.

“The government needs to urgently explain why it considers the full resumption of primary education to be safe in most areas despite alarming infection rates.”

The NASUWT teachers’ union said Mr Williamson’s announcement “does not go far enough”.

Patrick Roach, general secretary, said: “Stronger preventive action is needed to limit the further transmission of the coronavirus in schools and colleges, including enabling the greater use of remote and blended learning which would enable effective social distancing which is vital to minimising virus transmission.”

He also called for the mandatory wearing of face masks or visors within school and college buildings, and for teachers to be near the front of the queue for vaccinations.

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