Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove has said the Government hopes the staggered reopening of schools in England will go ahead in January as planned.
Officials from Downing Street and the Department for Education are due to discuss the issue on Monday amid concerns over the spread of a new strain of coronavirus.
Earlier this month, the Government said exam-year students would go back to school as normal after the Christmas holidays, but the majority of secondary school pupils would start the term online to allow headteachers to roll out mass testing of children and staff.
“It is our intention to make sure we can get children back to school as early as possible,” he said.
“We are talking to teachers and headteachers in order to make sure we can deliver effectively. But we all know that there are trade-offs.
“As a country we have decided – and I think this is the right thing to do – that we prioritise children returning to school.
“But we have a new strain and it is also the case that we have also had, albeit in a very limited way, Christmas mixing, so we do have to remain vigilant.
“We are confident that we will be able to get schools back in good order. Our plan and our timetable is there, and we are working with teachers to deliver it.”
Scientists have suggested that the mutated coronavirus strain could more easily infect children.
The National Education Union has previously said the Government should allow schools to move classes online for most pupils for a fortnight in January to allow Covid-19 cases to fall.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said the arguments for reopening schools in January were “very finely balanced”.
“I think the next few weeks going into January are going to be extremely difficult across the whole country,” Sir Jeremy, director of the Wellcome Trust, told the Today programme.
“Certainly my own view is that schools opening is an absolute priority. 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.
Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said: “Labour has been clear that keeping pupils learning should be a national priority, but a litany of Government failures, from a lack of funding for safety measures through to the delayed and chaotic announcement of mass testing, is putting young people’s education at risk.
“It is time for the Prime Minister to get a grip on the situation and show some leadership.
“The country needs to hear from him today, alongside the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser, about the evidence on the spread of the virus, how he plans to minimise disruption to education and a clear strategy for schools and colleges that commands the support of parents, pupils and staff.”