Parents who do not send their children back to school risk putting a “huge dent in their future life chances”, the education secretary has warned.
Millions of pupils in England and Wales return to the classroom this week.
Gavin Williamson has insisted in an open letter that schools are safe.
It comes after teachers criticised the government for publishing “last-minute” guidance on Friday evening detailing what to do during virus outbreaks and local lockdowns.
“If a child is not in school, they stand to lose far more than just a few months of learning. It could well put a huge dent in their future life chances,” Mr Williamson said in his open letter to parents.
“Education is a birthright, so let’s make sure we get all children back – back to learning, back to playing and back to being kids again.”
Mr Williamson said it was “generally accepted” that children’s health and wellbeing is more at risk if they do not go to school.
He cited a joint statement by the UK’s chief medical officers, which said “very few, if any” children and teenagers would come to long-term harm from Covid-19 solely by attending school.
The letter was published just as the government faced criticism for the timing of its guidance sent to schools in England, just days before most children begin term.
The guidance said that, in local lockdowns, secondary pupils could be kept home every other fortnight and, in an outbreak, large groups could be told to self-isolate.
While not addressing the teachers’ criticism in his open letter, Mr Williamson reassured parents that the health risk posed to children by Covid-19 is “extremely low”.
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He said “huge lengths” had been taken to prepare schools for pupils’ return, including children being placed in groups – or “bubbles” and the wearing of face coverings in communal areas of schools under lockdown.
He said the “priority” was for children to return. “It really is the best place for them to be,” he added.
Schools in Scotland and Northern Ireland have already been allowed to reopen.