Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said he will “move heaven and earth” to avoid shutting schools again, but he did not rule out a rise in Covid-19 infections being caused by children going back to class.
The minister also did not exclude classes and assemblies having to take place outside during this academic year amid coronavirus outbreaks in schools.
His comments came as pupils across England and Wales have begun to return to the classroom this week after the summer holidays, and schools in Northern Ireland have reopened.
Schools in Scotland returned a fortnight ago and the reopening is believed to have contributed to a rise in cases north of the border.
Asked if he could rule out school closures again, Mr Williamson told LBC radio: “I will move heaven and earth to make sure that we aren’t in a position of having to close schools.”
The minister added that he was “absolutely” confident pupils will get their GCSEs and A-levels at the end of this school year after exams were cancelled for two years in a row due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
He told LBC: “We’ve had two years where we’ve not been able to run a normal series of exams.
“I don’t think anyone wants to see a third year of that.
“We want to get back to normal, not just in terms of what the classroom experience is like but also the exam experience.”
But the Education Secretary did not rule out a rise in infections being caused by schools reopening.
After being asked repeatedly, Mr Williamson told Sky News: “This is why we’re doing the testing programme and we’re encouraging children to take part in it, parents, and of course teachers and support staff as well. This is a way of rooting out Covid-19.
“We’re trying to strike that constant, sensible balance of actually giving children as normal experience in the classroom as possible, but also recognising we’re still dealing with a global pandemic.”
All secondary school and college pupils are being invited to take two lateral flow tests at school, three to five days apart, in England on their return.
Schools and colleges are being encouraged to maintain increased hygiene and ventilation, and secondary school and college pupils in England have been asked to continue to test twice weekly at home.
Mr Williamson did not rule out outdoor classes and assemblies having to take place in the event of outbreaks.
But he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It is certainly not something that we’d be expecting to see an awful lot of, especially in autumn and winter.”
Schools in England no longer have to keep pupils in year group “bubbles” to reduce mixing and face coverings are no longer advised.
Children do not have to isolate if they come into contact with a positive case of Covid-19.
Instead, they will need to get a PCR test and isolate only if positive.
The medical director of Public Health England (PHE) moved to reassure parents as pupils return to classrooms, saying schools are not the “drivers” or “hubs” of Covid-19 infection in communities.
Dr Yvonne Doyle told BBC Breakfast: “There’ll be extra cleaning and hygiene, advice on ventilation (and) the testing is extremely important.”
She added that authorities had anticipated Covid-19 outbreaks as schools reopened, saying they are “part of normal practice”.
But Professor Calum Semple said schools are likely to be a “greater part of the problem” when it comes to spread of coronavirus than they previously were, and compared with workplaces where the majority of adults are vaccinated and many continue to work from home
The NHS is preparing to ensure it is ready to potentially offer Covid-19 vaccines to all 12 to 15-year-olds in England from this month, although a decision has yet to be taken by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) about this age group.
Mr Williamson said there is the capacity to both give Covid-19 vaccinations to 12 to 15-year-olds and deliver a booster programme.
He told Sky News: “If we get the get-go from JCVI we’re ready, the NHS, which has been so successful in rolling out this programme of vaccination, is ready to go into schools and deliver that vaccination programme for children.”
As pupils return to classrooms, schools in England can sign up with this year’s external tuition providers through the Government’s National Tutoring Programme (NTP) to offer pupils catch-up support.
The Department for Education (DfE) has said up to six million pupils are set to benefit from catch-up tuition for lost learning over the next three years under a “tutoring revolution” in schools.