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Some have closed early due to staff shortages while many are making emergency plans for the new term in January. Ministers yesterday insisted they want schools to reopen in the New Year “as normal”. But secondary schools will be offered a “small amount of flexibility” on when they return.

Education minister Alex Burghart explained that this would allow them to put in place Covid testing for pupils when the new term begins.

Tory MP Robert Halfon said the move shows the country is moving “sadly towards de facto school closures”.

Instead, the chairman of the Education Select Committee urged the Government to create an “army” of retired teachers and volunteers to help schools remain open in January.

Some 235,600 pupils were absent last week ‑ the second-highest figure this year ‑ and around 17,000 teachers were also believed to be at home.

Boris Johnson’s spokesman said: “The best place for children is in school, receiving vital face-to-face education.”

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