‘Omicron tidal wave’: will schools be forced to close again?

Staff and pupil absences already causing ‘chaos’, headteachers and unions warn

Pupils returning to school after the third lockdown
(Image credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

School leaders have warned that the arrival of Omicron in the UK has already triggered “chaos” in schools, with high levels of staff and pupil absences across the country.

Headteachers have cautioned that “parents are planning to keep children home to avoid the virus before Christmas”, The Guardian said, while urging “the government to introduce more protective measures, including masks in classrooms, better ventilation and tougher isolation rules to try to slow the spread of the virus”.

As concern rises over whether further restrictions might be needed to stem infections with the new variant, questions are also mounting over whether classrooms will soon be forced to close their doors, with some schools already shifting to remote learning.

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‘Last to close’

Appearing on LBC yesterday, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said that he could offer “no guarantees” that schools would not be asked to close as the country is currently in the midst of a “tidal wave” of Omicron infections.

Adding that he “didn’t want to see” classrooms empty, he continued that the government was focused on doing “everything else” to avoid that eventuality, citing Boris Johnson’s pledge that all adults will be offered a booster shot before the end of the month.

“If you are asking me for guarantees I will just say – as the health secretary, of course, I’m not the education secretary, as the health secretary – when it comes to our fight against this pandemic, there are no guarantees,” he said.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi later said in a video posted on Twitter that there “is no evidence to suggest we are going to need to close our schools and colleges”. He stressed that “schools will always be the last to close and first to open”.

Urging school staff to get their boosters as soon as possible, Zahawi also said during an appearance on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday that he would do “everything” in his “power” to make sure schools are open in January.

“The language over potential school closures from ministers has shifted from this time last year,” said Schools Week, “when politicians insisted classrooms would remain open despite a rise in cases of the Alpha variant.”

The latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) data also shows a slight increase in the number of secondary age children testing positive, with school age children reporting the highest Covid rates across all demographics.

But “the infection levels are down from a peak in the week before the October half term”, Schools Week added, “when 9.1% of pupils (one in 11) were estimated to have tested positive”.

Sick day

The ONS data on child infections is already playing out in classrooms, according to The Guardian. School leaders are reporting that “year groups are being sent home to study remotely” in high infection areas as there are “not enough teachers or supply teachers”.

“A small number of schools have been forced to move online until the end of term,” the paper added, with “up to half the teaching workforce” unavailable in some schools “due to Covid-related absence”.

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of NASUWT, the teachers’ union, wrote to Zahawi urging him to “avoid a repeat of the confusion and chaos which last year impacted negatively on public and parental confidence and hampered the hard work of teachers and school and college leaders in their preparations at the start of 2021.

“An immediate announcement from the government on additional measures for schools and colleges is, we believe, essential before the majority of schools and colleges close for the Christmas break.”

Calls are already mounting for schools in Scotland to “close early for the festive break to help contain the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid”, The Times reported.

Scottish ministers are facing “pressure from the Educational Institute of Scotland as fears rise that more staff and pupils will catch the virus”, with the teachers’ union calling for “decision-makers to consider shutting schools by Friday”.

Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland’s Drivetime, Nicola Sturgeon yesterday said the Scottish government was “not considering closing schools early”, adding that children have already “suffered disproportionately” as a result of classroom closures.

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of National Association of Head Teachers, told The Guardian that there “is already chaos in some schools as the Omicron wave hits”, warning that “delaying action until vaccination can take hold may actually keep children away from school longer in the long-term.

“The government must act now to deliver ventilation solutions, sensible and effective isolation protocols, and lift the unnecessary pressure of inspection and other bureaucratic burdens,” he added.

“That way we can concentrate on keeping children where they should be.”

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