Secondary school and college students in England will be asked to take regular coronavirus tests at home when they return to school next month.
The Prime Minister has confirmed that all pupils will return to class from March 8, but the return of students in secondary schools and colleges could be staggered due to the logistics of mass testing.
Secondary school and college students and staff are also being advised to wear face coverings in all areas, including classrooms, where social distancing cannot be maintained until Easter under strengthened protective measures.
Pupils in secondary schools and colleges will be asked to carry out rapid Covid-19 tests at home twice a week after they have been tested three times on site over the first two weeks of term.
It comes as a document from the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) – a sub-group of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) – said that the opening of primary and secondary schools is “likely to increase effective R by a factor of 1.1 to 1.5 (10% to 50%)”.
Students in secondary schools and colleges will be asked to use a lateral flow device when they return in a fortnight – and if they test negative, they will be allowed to resume face-to-face classes.
Secondary school and college leaders will be given some flexibility to stagger the return of students from the week beginning March 8 to ensure pupils are tested before returning to class.
Primary school children will not need to take a rapid coronavirus test, but primary school staff will continue to take two rapid tests each week at home.
A headteachers’ union has said the return of secondary school and college pupils may need to be staggered “over a minimum of two weeks” due to the “huge logistical challenge” of mass testing.
Announcing the plans to reopen schools and colleges to all pupils from March 8, Boris Johnson told MPs: “All the evidence shows that classrooms are the best places for our young people to be and that’s why I’ve always said that schools would be the last to close and the first to reopen.
“And based on our assessment of the current data against the four tests, I can tell the House that two weeks from today, pupils and students in all schools and further education settings can safely return to face-to-face teaching, supported by twice weekly testing of secondary school and college pupils.”
He added that breakfast and after-school clubs will also be able to reopen – and other children’s activities, including sport, can restart “where necessary to help parents to work”.
The decision comes despite calls from education unions to adopt a “phased return” of students – similar to in Wales and Scotland where schools began reopening to the youngest pupils on Monday.
Mr Johnson called on Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer to “persuade some of his friends in the unions” to say that “schools are safe”.
Following the announcement, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “Of immediate concern is the huge logistical challenge facing secondary schools and colleges of having to manage the mass testing of pupils for coronavirus.
“This requires setting up testing stations on site and having significant numbers of staff to operate them.
“This may mean that the return of pupils has to be staggered over a minimum of two weeks, and we expect the Government to show a spirit of understanding.”
He added that he was concerned that the full return on March 8 may “lead to more disruption”.
Sir Daniel Moynihan, chief executive of the Harris Federation of 48 primary and secondary schools in and around London, said the testing regime for schools would mean not all pupils could return on March 8.
He told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: “We think we can test probably 150-200 a day in a big secondary school, so we will probably have to stagger the start over a few days so different year groups will come in on different days.”
Sir Daniel called the testing criteria a “logistical headache” but one that was “worthwhile” to identify Covid-19 cases and resume face-to-face education.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, questioned why the Government had not taken the same “phased approach” as Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.
She warned: “A ‘big bang’ school reopening brings 10 million people back into crowded buildings with no social distancing and inadequate ventilation.
“The wearing of face masks by pupils and staff in secondary school lessons is a welcome measure but it is not, on its own enough.”
All staff at private, voluntary and independent nurseries will also have access to rapid tests to use twice weekly at home.
An SPI-M document, published on Monday, suggests scientists are at odds with the Government on the timing of schools going back.
SPI-M says: “A phased reopening would allow the effects to be assessed which would be particularly valuable if schools were one of the first things to reopen, as there will be more uncertainties in the early stages of releasing measures (e.g. around the impact of vaccines).”
Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London and a senior scientific adviser, said reopening schools could increase the number of Covid-19 cases and potentially push the R rate above 1.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “The testing of staff and students ahead of their return to secondary schools and colleges, alongside strengthened safety measures, should reassure families and education staff that extra measures are in place alongside the existing bubble system, enhanced hygiene and Covid-secure precautions.
“We are all well aware that being back in school or college brings huge benefits to young people’s education, development and wellbeing.
“The classroom is the very best place for education and the return of face-to-face teaching for all pupils will be a welcome move for pupils and parents across the country.”
In Scotland, children between the ages of four and eight in primaries one to three began returning to school from Monday, along with some senior secondary pupils who need to do practical work.
Children aged between three and seven also started a phased return to school in Wales on Monday, and some vocational learners were back at college for their practical qualifications.
All primary school pupils, as well as older age groups in Years 11 and 13 who have exams, could return from March 15 if Wales’s public health situation continues to improve.
Some primary school pupils in Northern Ireland will return to class on March 8, while secondary pupils in key exam years will return to school on March 22.