School children across England will be required to wear face masks and take a lateral flow test as they start returning to the classroom today.
All students will also be expected to take a COVID test on-site and complete a test twice a week from home under the updated government advice.
The first week of term will also see Ofsted inspections paused and schools have been encouraged to ask for a deferral if they are “significantly impacted by COVID-related staff absence”.
It comes as England and Scotland recorded a further 157,758 cases of the virus in the latest 24-hour period and several public services resorted to emergency plans to mitigate staff shortages.
‘Most important thing’ is schools stay open
On Monday, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said the government wants to make sure schools are given “as many tools to be able to make sure that education is open”.
But he admitted it was “more challenging, of course, to deliver education with masks on in the classroom”.
He said: “This is an aerosol-transmitted virus and if you’re wearing a mask, if you’re asymptomatic, then you’re less likely to infect other people.”
He added that the “most important thing” is to keep schools open and the government is monitoring staff absences.
‘Flexible approach to learning’
Ahead of the beginning of term, the Department of Education sent schools an email on Sunday advising them to merge classes together in preparation for staff shortages caused by COVID.
Mr Zahawi also published an open letter to educators telling them to “consider ways to implement a flexible approach to learning” if face-to-face teaching becomes impossible.
He said this involves “utilising all your available teaching and non-teaching workforce to maximise on-site education for as many pupils as possible while you flexibly deliver provision either on-site or remotely to some pupils”.
But added that this “should only be on a short-term measure”.
Children getting vaccinated is ‘very encouraging’
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general-secretary of the National Education Union, criticised the “last-minute” nature of the guidance.
“It’s yet another case of the government just being last minute about guidance which could easily have been issued earlier to give schools more time to prepare,” she told Sky News.
Dr Bousted warned the impact of staff absences could be “significant”, noting that 8% of staff were off work due to COVID in December, before the Omicron variant began spreading rapidly.
She said primary school teachers are especially vulnerable to catching the virus and if they become sick there will be a “real problem” of who would deliver their classes.
On Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson admitted he was not happy about the plans for education settings but said they were necessary for now.
During a visit to the Guttman Centre at Stoke Mandeville Stadium in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, he said it was “very encouraging” to see children getting vaccinated before going back to school.
Speaking to staff, Mr Johnson remarked on people of “all ages” queuing up to get a vaccine.
“Loads of kids too, it’s very encouraging to see. All the kids getting jabbed before they go back to school,” he said.