Schools in England are going to move some lessons online, as widespread absences caused by the rapid spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant have prompted the government to encourage principals to adopt ‘more flexible’ approaches to learning.
In an open letter published on Sunday, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told school leaders they must “do everything” to ensure that face-to-face learning continues. But in a change of previous prescriptions, he acknowledged that they should consider moving some lessons online if staff shortages make it impossible.
The decision comes as the rapid spread of Omicron’s record cases of Covid-19 in the UK threatens large staff shortages in the education sector as teachers are forced to isolate with the virus before the spring term, which begins for many schools on Tuesday.
“As operational challenges caused by labor shortages. . . making face-to-face teaching impossible, I would encourage you to consider ways to implement a flexible approach to learning, ”Zahawi wrote.
This could involve deploying teachers to “maximize on-site instruction for as many students as possible” while offering flexible distance education to other students, he said.
The advice was cautiously welcomed by some education unions, who had previously called for school leaders to be allowed to make local decisions on how best to keep schools open.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said that with high staff absenteeism “inevitable” school leaders “should be trusted to make adjustments” based on their “specific circumstances”.
However, some said the letter showed that not enough was being done to keep children in school.
“It seems to be just before the inevitable bend, rather than introducing a new flexibility,” said Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the National Education Union, which represents teachers.
To control Omicron, the government on Sunday advised high school students to wear face masks in classrooms, a recommendation that had previously been in effect last spring. It said it had ordered 7,000 air filtration units for schools.
Secondary students will also be tested for Covid before returning to school, which delays the start of the term by a few days for some.
But Courtney said the government needs to do more, including speeding up the vaccination of older children and ordering more air purification units. There are almost 25,000 schools in England.
Pepe Di’Iasio, a principal at Rotherham, said school leaders were frustrated to hear of new guidance from media coverage with just a few days left before the start of the term.
“We have known about Omicron and high transmission rates for many weeks and did not have a strategy in place until we heard about the announcement by the Sunday papers,” he said.
“I think everyone will try to avoid moving to online learning, but accept that we can be forced if staff absenteeism is high.”
Health Minister Edward Argar said on Sunday he saw no reason for new Covid restrictions at first, describing it as an “absolute last resort” as the situation worsened.
Argar told Times Radio there was nothing in the data to suggest further curbs were needed. “But that data changes day by day. . . we have to keep an eye on everything, ”he said. “We need cool, calm heads.”
The minister said it was likely that the number of people going to hospital because of Covid would continue to rise given the delay between infection and hospitalization. However, Britain was in a much stronger position than a year ago given the advent of antiviral drugs, he said.
West Streeting, secretary of shadow health, said the government should address the shortage of Covid tests for the public.
“The government does need to work together to provide testing,” Streeting said Sunday. “And I think the health secretary should explain why he only told me in the House of Commons three weeks ago that the availability of tests is not a problem. And yet it is so clear now. ”
Argar has insisted that tests be available after deliveries at pharmacies over the Christmas period. “Tests are available. “We advise people to continue on the website to refresh it and they will find that there are more slots available every hour to book one for delivery or to pick up at pharmacies,” he said.
Argar said the government would resist calls to reduce isolation to just five days – instead of seven – for people who came in contact with an infected person.
“It is right that we are following scientific advice and we have not yet had scientific advice to reduce it at this stage,” he said.
Cabinet Office Secretary Steve Barclay has instructed colleagues to draw up “robust contingency plans” to tackle coronavirus-related staff absences that threaten to disrupt government agencies – including the NHS – as well as UK businesses over the coming weeks.
With rising numbers of cases exacerbating staff shortages already plaguing many sectors, public sector leaders have been asked to test plans against the worst-case scenarios of absenteeism of up to 25 per cent.