Children in Wales will begin to return to school in person after the half-term holiday later this month, the Welsh government is to announce on Friday.
It follows an announcement from the Scottish government earlier this week which said that children in the first three years of primary school will return to classrooms from 22 February.
Kirsty Williams, the Welsh education minister, is expected to announce that children in the foundation phase – those up to the age of seven – can also return on the same date.
But the government in England has said its schools would not reopen before March, despite pressure from a core group of Tory dissenters as well as William Wragg and Robert Halfon, Conservative MPs who chair high-profile parliamentary committees.
Following Scotland’s announcement, Boris Johnson reaffirmed that the earliest moment the government in England could make a decision was 15 February, when it will have received further data about the vaccination rollout and more details on community transmission.
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary for England, has pledged that schools will be given at least two weeks’ notice of any reopening, meaning that the earliest possible date from 15 February would be 1 March.
But No 10 would prefer for schools to reopen fully to all year groups rather than a phased return of few year groups of primary schoolchildren and appears highly likely to stick to its predicted earliest date of 8 March. In Northern Ireland, where community transmission remains high, schools will also not fully reopen until 8 March at the earliest.
In all four countries, schools and colleges have remained open throughout lockdowns for the children of critical workers and for those children classed as vulnerable.
The decision by the Cardiff administration follows a rapid fall in community cases of Covid-19 infections in Wales since Christmas. The country also had just 13 confirmed or probable cases of the South African variant earlier this week, with 10 having a travel link to southern Africa and the three under investigation.
Mark Drakeford, Welsh first minister, had earlier said that a “phased and flexible” return to school this month for some pupils was being planned when it was safe to do so.
Teaching unions are said to be unhappy with the Welsh decision, which would see full class sizes readmitted and no additional mitigation measures.
The unions have presented the Welsh government with a list of measures their members wanted in place before returning, including strict social distancing and medical grade masks to be worn by foundation phase teachers.
Neil Butler, national official for the NASUWT teachers’ union, said: “[We have] already made it clear to the Welsh government that we would want to see that those education workers that would engage in face-to-face teaching from 22 February being given priority access to vaccinations and that there needs to be effective and sufficient [personal protective equipment] available for all education workers.”
The Association of School and College Leaders Cymru has previously called for the Welsh government to publish scientific advice and modelling on the impact the return of pupils to classrooms would have.