The education secretary has said “we must do everything we can” to keep schools open as he made a series of announcements to protect pupils as COVID cases surge in the UK.
Nadhim Zahawi told the House of Commons:
• A vaccination service will be set up in schools from Monday for children who are eligible
• Schools will have a dedicated supply of lateral flow tests – if they run out they can order more
• Face coverings should be worn in classrooms by Year 7 pupils and above – a decision Mr Zahawi said he took “reluctantly”
• A review on face coverings in classrooms will take place on 26 January when Mr Zahawi hopes data “will allow us to ditch masks in class”
• There will be a temporary break from Ofsted inspections so schools can test pupils for COVID on-site in the next week
• Schools hit by staff shortages should ask for a deferral of inspections by Ofsted
• 8,000 air purifiers will start going to schools that are having ventilation issues next week.
The education secretary said: “I would just like to right now be crystal clear about one thing: That is we must do everything we can, everything in our power to keep all education and childcare settings open and teaching in-person.
“Face-to-face education is the best way for children and young people to learn and develop. You don’t have to be the education secretary to know this.”
Mr Zahawi said he had extended the COVID workforce fund until February half-term for schools struggling with staff absences.
He also said visa relief for overseas students remains so they “don’t need to worry”.
And he said retired teachers have answered his call to return to schools to help out with shortages, including two MPs, Conservatives Jonathan Gullis and Caroline Ansell, and staff from the Department for Education.
Exams will go ahead as normal and in their normal structure this summer, he promised Mr Gullis, adding: “I can absolutely give him that assurance.”
Mr Zahawi acknowledged wearing masks in classrooms is not ideal but a study of 123 schools whose students did so in the autumn revealed there were fewer infections.
He added that he would not normally expect teachers to wear face coverings if they are teaching from the front of the class but the UK Health Security Agency said it would help reduce transmission of the highly-infectious Omicron variant.
The education secretary added that 8% of school staff were off with COVID at the end of last year.