Coronavirus: what did Michael Gove say about schools returning - will classroom learning return after Christmas?

The announcement comes just days after medical professionals warned of another spike in Covid-19 cases

It has been confirmed that children in England will return to the classroom from 4 January 2021, despite reports that medical advisors have warned schools should remain closed.

Conservative Minister, Michael Gove, made the announcement while stressing that decisions were constantly under review.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The Conservative MP told Sky News that primary schools would be the first to return to classroom learning, alongside year 11 and year 13 pupils in secondary school.

Michael Gove announced primary school children will be the first to return to school in January (Picture: Getty images)

So how will kids return to learning, is it safe, and what have medical professionals said? This is what we know.

When will school pupils return to classroom learning?

Michael Gove has told Sky News in an interview on 28 December that children in primary school and year 11 and 13 will return as per their normal schedule after the Christmas break. Alongside children of key workers and vulnerable children, they will return to school from 4 January.

Despite discussions around delaying this until later in the month - as well as incorporating blended learning - the government has decided schools should reopen. The following week (commencing 11 January 2021), other secondary year groups will join their peers on school campuses.

As a second strain of Covid-19 caused nationwide lockdown earlier in December, the UK government explained that exam-year students would be the priority for returning in January, with other years being phased back into the classroom.

Ministerial advisors and the department of Education were set to meet on 28 December to discuss schooling, as the country attempts to avoid a second spike in covid fatalities.

Mr Gove has now said, "Our plan is that primary schools will go back but with secondary schools it will be the case that next week only children in Year 11 and Year 13 - those who are doing their GCSEs, their BTECs, their A-levels - those will go back.

“And also children of key workers and children who are vulnerable and need the support and care that schools can provide.

However, he did stress twice during the interview, “We always keep things under review.”

What have medical officials advised about schools?

It has been reported by Politico that medical advisors - including chief advisor on the Government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), Sir Patrick Vallance - were less keen for an immediate return, instead opting to advise a delay until late January.

Meanwhile, fellow member of SAGE, Sir Jeremy Farrar, has told how the decision to reopen schools in January was "very finely balanced.”

He explained on BBC Radio 4 that his views were “schools opening is an absolute priority.”

However, he added, “But society - and eventually this is a political decision - will have to balance keeping schools open, if that is possible, with therefore closing down other parts of society.

“It is going to be a trade-off between one or the other. You cannot have everything.

You cannot have the whole of society opening, and schools opening and further education and universities, and keep R below 1 with this variant. I think there are some very, very tough choices.”

The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine recently suggested that the R number (rate of infection) will not drop below one, unless children and other students are forced to stay home.

Researchers explained it was unlikely this could be achieved unless all schools, colleges and universities closed.

Are colleges and universities returning in January?

For the time being, colleges and universities - where possible - will continue to learn via a blended learning model of zoom lectures, online content and distance learning.

The spike in coronavirus cases in September and October was somewhat due to students mixing, as the demographic of those most likely to catch the virus shifted to young people.

This, in turn, led to pupils isolating, classes being cancelled and students being advised they could not go home to their families - a rule which was met with criticism and later altered for the sake of students’ mental wellbeing.

Students have since studied on campus for the purpose of resources and facilities, though group learning has largely been avoided.

Is the same approach being taken across the UK?

Scottish school pupils will not return to the classroom until the week commencing 11 January, with a phased approach expected to mean some students will not be back in school until the week beginning 18 January.

However, vulnerable children and children of key workers will be eligible to return from 4 January.

In Wales, secondary schools closed early in December to limit the spread of the virus. It is expected that they will return in a phased model from 4 January until all kids are back in the classroom on 18 January.

Welsh First Minister, Mark Drakeford, announced on 21 December, "We reached an agreement last week with the local education authorities for a phased return after the Christmas break, a period in which schools will be able to adapt to these developing circumstances and where individual headteachers will be able to take into account the particular circumstances in their schools.”

In Northern Ireland, a full national lockdown is still in place and it is expected schools will also be delayed in returning in the New Year.