Gavin Williamson has abandoned government plans to reopen primary schools to all pupils in England before the summer holidays.
Instead, the education secretary said schools will be asked to take in whatever children they can while sticking to the rules on maximum class sizes of 15 pupils and social distancing.
The government hopes to have all secondaries and primaries to open for “more” pupils in September, and for years 10 and 12 to have some face-to-face access to teachers after 15 June.
Under a roadmap to easing the coronavirus lockdown unveiled last month, the government’s plan was for all primary school children to return to schools before the summer for a month if feasible.
Last week, primary schools across the country began a phased reopening, with the government requesting that children in nursery, year one and year six, began returning to classes.
But addressing MPs in the Commons, Mr Williamson said: I know that schools need time to put in place strict protective measures.
The safety of our children, young people and staff remains my priority, he added. We are not able to welcome all primary school children back before the summer for a full month.
We all know how important it is for children and young people to be in education and childcare and it is vital that we get them back there as soon as the scientific advice indicates that we can.
While welcoming the move, the cabinet minister’s opposite number Rebecca Long-Bailey said for weeks headteachers, unions and staff have warned that the plans to open primary schools before the summer were simply impractical while implementing social distancing safely.
The shadow education secretary added: “If the government had brought together everyone involved in implementing these plans from the outset and really taken on board what they had to say, they would not be in the situation of having to roll back at all.
But what’s done is done and now it is imperative the government looks ahead to what the education system needs over the coming months and years.
Mr Williamson also insisted the government would not hesitate to act if the R rate of infection reaches above one in local areas amid concerns about the prevalence of coronavirus in certain regions.
Some schools in areas such as the North West are concerned about the local rates of transmission, he said. I can assure them that SAGE’s [Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] R estimate for the whole of the UK is below one.
If robust data shows local action needs to be taken, we will not hesitate to do so. But we are not in that position.