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Gavin Williamson: If we work together on coronavirus testing, we can keep schools open

Writing in today’s Telegraph, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson sets out why the Government is prioritising keeping schools open in order to continue educating young people as well as keeping them safe.

The welcome news of a vaccine brings hope for 2021 but we still have to be vigilant. The stricter rules around Christmas, brought in after scientists said a new Covid variant is spreading rapidly, highlight that we still have to continue to do all we can to control the pandemic. Teachers and those working in schools have already done so much, not only to continue education, but to help keep our young people safe.

I also know from visiting schools and speaking to teachers that they have put in a huge amount of work this year because they know education is a national priority. There’s broad consensus from those working in education and with young people that we must keep schools open. Indeed, the Chief Medical Officer is clear that the risks to the progress and overall wellbeing of children from being kept out of school are greater than being in school.

As such there are no plans for schools to close, but the start of term will see a staggered roll-out of mass testing which will provide extra protection and reassurance. It has rightly been a national priority for all pupils to return to school full-time and that’s why we will continue to support local authorities, providers, school trusts, colleges and childcare settings to open and remain open next term.

It’s because we know the epidemic is changing rapidly. Scientific evidence does not suggest that schools and colleges themselves are driving virus transmission, but infection rates remain higher than we would like among secondary age students.

It is for this reason that last week we said all secondary schools and colleges in England will be able to test all staff and students from the first week of January. This important milestone, alongside the protective measures already in place in schools and colleges, should help to reduce risks of transmission both within educational settings and within the community.

I am in no doubt about the scale of this task: building on successful pilots around the country, we are making sure 11 million lateral flow tests will be available to schools and colleges from Jan 4, providing capacity for up to 5.5 million children and young people to be tested in the new year.

This testing programme is the first of its kind and Armed Forces personnel will support directly through planning with schools and colleges.

Meanwhile, support staff, agency staff and volunteers will oversee the testing – so that teachers can focus on what they do best: educating our children. Over the weekend, I met the unions and key representatives of the school and college sector to reassure them of the support we will provide to help with this. And we will continue to engage with the sector to implement this programme.

This effort will build on the heroic strides that teachers have taken this year to make schools as safe as possible. It will reduce the spread of the virus in the community by identifying those without symptoms – who can spread Covid-19 unknowingly – and reduce disruption in schools in the spring and summer terms.

To allow this to happen, secondary schools and colleges should operate a phased return. This will reduce the number of students in school to minimise the impacts of coronavirus.

This means that from the first day of term, for one week, vulnerable children, the children of critical workers and those taking exams in 2021 will be taught in school, and all others should be educated remotely.

Face-to-face education will then begin for all on Jan 11. This news has come late in the term, but it is the nature of this virus that we have to deal with issues as they arise. If we can, however, all work together on rapid, asymptomatic testing, we can keep schools open for the whole of 2021 so that children get the education and the stability that we all know they deserve.

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