Published: 13:38, 27 January 2021
| Updated: 14:14, 28 January 2021
Boris Johnson has said schools will not reopen before Monday, March 8, in an address to the House of Commons.
The Prime Minister, fresh from announcing the grim milestone of 100,000 coronavirus deaths and taking "full responsibility" for the response to Covid-19 so far, told MPs parents will be given two weeks notice of reopening and it will therefore not be possible to do so after half term as many had hoped.
In terms of easing of lockdown generally he said a road map would be announced upon the publication of a report on its affect so far.
This will happen when MPs return from a break on the week commencing February 22.
“Reopening schools must be our national priority,” he said in a statement to Parliament.
“I know how parents and teachers need as much certainty as possible including two week notice of the return to teaching.”
But he stressed schools would be the first to reopen and this would not happen before Monday, March 8.
It would depend, he added, on vaccinating (delivery at least one jab) to everyone in the four most vulnerable age groups by mid February.
Due to the huge disruption children have faced a 'catch-up programme' worth £300 million will be provided for tutoring and summer schools.
Free school meals will also continue until March 8.
Labour Party and opposition leader Keir Starmer criticised what he perceived to be the government’s haphazard approach so far.
“Even for this Prime Minister it is quite something to open them one day, and close them the next." he responded in Parliament.
He called for all teachers and school staff to be vaccinated over the half term break.
But the Prime Minister dismissed such plans and said the focus must be on clearing the four most vulnerable groups first, declaring that schools are not "unsafe", before adding children were "considerable vectors of transmission".
“It would delay our route out of lockdown and delay our ability to get kids back back into school," he said.
He was backed by Sevenoaks MP Laura Trott who told the House: "The Prime Minister is absolutely right schools are safe,' adding "they are wonderful places."
Dartford MP Gareth Johnson said the reopening of schools was a "priority" and children needed to be supported on their return.
"I know, as a parent myself, how crucial it is that children are able to return to the classroom," he said.
"By 8th March we will have vaccinated the top four most vulnerable groups and allowed sufficient time for those vaccinations to take full effect."
"Children need to be in school," he added. "They have missed out on so much of their education already and so it is vital we not only allow them to return to school but also that we support them to catch up on their schoolwork."
Donna Lodge, chief executive officer of Endeavour MAT, a Trust with three secondary schools in the Dartford area, welcomed the Prime Minister's announcement.
"We are pleased that the Prime Minister has indicated when schools may be in a position to return to face to face teaching," she said.
"We have managed to ensure our students have benefitted from online, remote teaching throughout the pandemic and have been delighted with the surveys completed by parents, expressing 98% satisfaction for the way in which the virtual teaching is taking place.
"We have also managed to ensure any vulnerable child or child of a key worker parent has continued to be able to attend on site. Nevertheless, both students and staff are missing the personal interaction and are keen to return to school."
However, the school's chief expressed her hopes that the vaccination programme would be "offered early" to school staff to prevent any further disruption.
She said: "We hope that the vaccination will be offered early to school staff to prevent further disruption once schools return and that this time, schools will be allowed some discretion over creating rotas to ensure the children most in need of face to face education are allowed to return early.
"In the first lockdown, the rule of only allowing back examination year groups, prevented our newest school Stone Lodge from bringing back students, as only Year 7 and 8 are currently housed at the school."
The announcement was also cautiously welcomed by Garry Ratcliffe, chief executive officer of the Galaxy Trust, which runs three primary schools, also in Dartford.
"Quite rightly, the Prime Minister spoke about the conditions that would need to be satisfied in order for a March 8th date to be practical, and we wait to see if these conditions will be met," he said.
"The most important thing is that our pupils and staff remain safe and healthy, and we will continue to do everything we can to ensure this is the case."
Although the schools chief added he was "cautious" as to what the Prime Minister's comment meant at this time.
"All our children are able to access online learning, and children of critical workers as well as vulnerable pupils continue to attend school," he said.
"Whether the return date is 8th March or later – perhaps even after the Easter holidays, myself and the entire Galaxy Trust staff understand that the best place for all children is in school, and we can’t wait to have them back altogether in the near future.
"Then the difficult job of re-building their learning as well as those vital social skills they have missed this year, begins!"
The government's approach to schooling in lockdown has been one of the most controversial aspects of its response.
After initially refusing to close class rooms last March it then did, except for children of essential workers.
In the summer, major issues with the controversial exam algorithm saw another u-turn.
Schools returned as planned in September but this year's exams were then pushed back - but by just three weeks despite hundreds of thousands of children continuing to be sent home due to exposure to the virus.
They broke up for Christmas as planned, but some wrapped up early prompting education secretary Gavin Williamson to threaten them with legal action.
Then, in January, another 11th hour u-turn saw many pupils, depending on where they lived, told they would not be returning to the class room with just days until they were due to go back.
Then, a day into the start of term, another u-turn saw the same policy extended to all schools, the majority of which had returned for just a day.
GCSEs, AS and A Levels were then called off.
Schools, as always remain open for children of essential workers and, due to a change in policy, vulnerable children, meaning the numbers still heading in is far higher than during the first lockdown.
In the address Mr Johnson also announced the anticipated travel quarantine.
There will be a ban on travel from 22 countries where there is a known variant, including South Africa and Brazil. Those who have to come must isolate in facilities provided.
Home Secretary Priti Patel will add more information later on.
Analysis by KM Group political editor Paul Francis
The issue of when schools should re-open has been vexing parents as much as it has been vexing politicians.
Thrust into the world of home schooling, many were initially enthused by the opportunity to take on the role as surrogate teachers but as time has gone by, that has given way to a sense of anxiety and apprehension about how long schools might be shut for.
The Prime Minister's timetable envisages a March 8 return but the key word in his latest Downing Street briefing was a “hope” that things would look better in a few weeks, which, given events, was a safety-first option.
While it is true that the PM has to consider how best to quell the swelling unease among some of his own backbenchers about schools, he is equally concerned about the impact that home learning is having on children and parents, especially in socially disadvantaged areas but more widely.
Plenty of families have had to address the issue of parents having to stay at home - which is fine so long as you can - but in many, the option does not exist.
The danger of setting a date is that parents and teachers will see that as one fixed firmly in the calendar and if it transpires that the date cannot be met, an awful lot of flak will come the Prime Minister’s way.
And that might well lead to discontent at the ballot box: with local county council elections in May, it could be that Conservative candidates - as is often the case - will be the political punch ball for the government and if that does happen, there could be a few bloody noses on May 6.