Secondary schools will be offered “flexibility” on when pupils should return after the Christmas break amid concerns over Covid cases.
The government has insisted it is committed to keeping schools open in January and is advising pupils to return to classrooms next term.
Education minister Alex Burghart said schools will have a “small amount” of leeway over when to welcome pupils back, but this approach will allow schools time to put testing measures in place in the new year.
He said: “The government is committed to ensuring schools open in January as normal.
“The classroom is the very best place for children and young people’s development.
“Protecting education continues to be our absolute priority.”
Covid testing at the start of term
Mr Burghart said that testing, vaccinations, ventilation and good hygiene measures will ensure that in-classroom teaching can continue in January.
The government is now recommending that all secondary schools will be tested for Covid-19 at the start of the January term.
The minister explained: “We are offering a small amount of flexibility for the time at which schools can go back in order to make sure that this testing can take place.
“We are offering additional funding to make sure that this testing is available.
“I can reassure the House that schools have and will have all of the testing facilities that they require.”
Despite reassurances, Robert Halfon, Conservative chairman of the Education Select Committee, said it seems “we are moving sadly towards de facto school closures”.
The MP for Harlow suggested that a “network of supply teachers” should be ready to step in should education staff be required to isolate.
Conservative former health minister Steve Brine also highlighted union calls for a staggered return in January and questioned if the government can guarantee schools will definitely reopen.
Mr Burghart replied: “We absolutely want and expect education settings to be open. We want and expect children to be taught in person. And we want and expect school life to go ahead.”
Schools preparing for online learning
Despite assurances from the government, schools across the UK have told the BBC that they are preparing to switch to online learning next term if needed, as Covid cases continue to rise.
It has been reported that some pupils are being asked to take laptops home with them over Christmas so they are prepared in the event schools do not reopen in January.
Some schools and colleges have already switched to remote lessons this week in the run-up to the festive break.
However, parents are being urged not to take their children out of school before the end of term, with the government saying it is important that schools and parents “don’t take precautionary steps to deprive their children of education”.
The plea comes amid reports that parents are choosing to keep their children out of class ahead of Christmas due to concerns about the rapidly spreading Omicron variant.
Parents are also being encouraged to book a second vaccine dose appointment for their children as bookings open to 12 to 15 year-olds.
The Prime Minister said appointments for children in this age group can be made in England from Monday (20 December).
Everyone who is eligible is being encouraged to take up the offer of a jab before returning to classrooms, with the hope that vaccinations will help avoid a switch to remote learning in the new year.