Schools in England are set to move some lessons online, as widespread absences caused by the rapid spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant prompted the government to urge headteachers to adopt “more flexible” approaches to learning.
In an open letter published on Sunday, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi told school leaders they should “do everything” to ensure face-to-face learning continued. But in a change from previous directives he admitted they should consider moving some lessons online if staff shortages made this impossible.
The decision comes as the rapid spread of Omicron drives record cases of Covid-19 in the UK, threatening big staff shortages in the education sector as teachers with the virus are forced to isolate ahead of the spring term, which for many schools begins on Tuesday.
“If operational challenges caused by workforce shortages . . . make delivery of 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 “maximise on-site education for as many pupils as possible” while offering flexible remote teaching to other pupils, he said.
The advice was cautiously welcomed by some education unions, which have previously called for school leaders to be allowed to make local decisions about how best to keep schools open.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said that with high staff absence “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 bowing before the inevitable, rather than introducing a new flexibility,” Kevin Courtney, the general secretary of the National Education Union, which represents teachers, said.
To control Omicron the government on Sunday advised secondary school pupils to wear face coverings in classrooms, a recommendation previously in force last spring. It said it had ordered 7,000 air filtration units for schools.
Secondary pupils will also be tested for Covid before they return to school, delaying the beginning of term by several days for some.
At the end of last term many students were given test kits to use but on Monday the Department for Education asked all education establishments to provide one on-site test before the start of term.
Courtney said the government should be doing more, including accelerating the vaccination of older children and ordering more air-purifying units. England has nearly 25,000 schools.
Pepe Di’Iasio, a headteacher in Rotherham, said school leaders were frustrated to learn of new guidance from media coverage with just a few days to go before the beginning of term.
“We’ve known about Omicron and high rates of transmission for many weeks and haven’t had a strategy in place until we hear about the announcement through the Sunday papers,” he said.
“I think everyone will be trying to avoid moving to online learning, but accept that we may be forced to if staff absence is high.”
Edward Argar, health minister, said on Sunday he saw no reason for new Covid restrictions for now, describing them as an “absolute last resort” if the situation worsened.
Argar told Times Radio that there was nothing in the data suggesting the need for further curbs. “But that data changes day by day . . . we’ve got to keep everything under review,” he said. “We need cool, calm heads.”
The minister said it was likely that the number of people going to hospital owing to Covid would continue to go up given the lag between infection and hospitalisation. However, Britain was in a much stronger position than a year ago given the arrival of antiviral drugs, he said.
Wes Streeting, shadow health secretary, said the government needed to get to grips with shortage of Covid tests for the public.
“The government does need to get its act together on the supply of testing,” Streeting said on Sunday. “And I think the health secretary needs to explain why it was that only three weeks ago he told me in the House of Commons that availability of tests wasn’t a problem. And yet now it so clearly is.”
Argar insisted that there were tests available after deliveries to pharmacies over the Christmas period. “Tests are available. We advise people to keep going on the website to refresh it and they will find that every hour, more slots are available for booking one for delivery or for collecting from pharmacies,” he said.
Argar said the government would resist calls to cut isolation to just five days — instead of seven — for people who have come into contact with an infected person.
“It is right that we follow scientific advice and we haven’t had scientific advice to cut that at this point,” he said.
Steve Barclay, Cabinet Office minister, has ordered colleagues to draw up “robust contingency plans” to tackle coronavirus-related staff absences threatening to disrupt government agencies — including the NHS — as well as UK businesses over the coming weeks.
With rising case numbers exacerbating the staff shortages already plaguing many sectors, public sector leaders have been asked to test plans against worst-case scenarios of workforce absences of up to 25 per cent.