Schools in England are set to move some lessons online, as widespread absences caused by the rapid spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant have prompted the government to urge school leaders to adopt ‘more learning approaches flexible ”.
In an open letter published on Sunday, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told school leaders they must “do everything” to ensure continued face-to-face learning. But in a change from previous guidelines, he admitted they should consider moving some lessons online if understaffing made it impossible.
The move comes as the rapid spread of Omicron leads to record cases of Covid-19 in the UK, threatening serious staff shortages in the education sector as teachers with the virus are forced to self-isolate before the spring term, which for many schools begins on Tuesday.
“If the operational challenges caused by labor shortages. . . make face-to-face teaching impossible, I encourage you to consider ways to implement a flexible approach to learning, ”Zahawi wrote.
This could involve deploying teachers to “maximize onsite instruction for as many students as possible” while providing flexible distance education to other students, he said.
The advice has been greeted with caution by some education unions, who have previously called for school leaders to be allowed to make local decisions on how best to keep schools open.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Principals, said that in the event of high staff absences, principals should “be trusted to make adjustments” according to their needs. “specific circumstances”.
However, some said the letter showed that not enough was being done to keep the children in school.
“It just seems to bow to the inevitable, rather than introduce new flexibility,” said Kevin Courtney, secretary general of the National Education Union, which represents teachers.
To control Omicron, the government advised high school students on Sunday to wear face covers in classrooms, a recommendation previously in effect last spring. He said he ordered 7,000 air filtration units for schools.
High school students will also be tested for Covid before their return to school, delaying the start of the school year by several days for some.
But Courtney said the government should do more, including speeding up immunizations for older children and ordering more air purification units. There are almost 25,000 schools in England.
Pepe Di’Iasio, a school principal in Rotherham, said principals were frustrated to learn new directions from the media coverage days before the start of the school year.
“We have known about Omicron and the high transmission rates for many weeks and have no strategy in place until we hear about the announcement in the Sunday papers,” he said.
“I think everyone will try to avoid switching to e-learning, but accept that we may be forced to do so if staff absenteeism is high.”
Health Minister Edward Argar said on Sunday he saw no reason for new Covid restrictions at this time, describing them as an “absolute last resort” if the situation worsened.
Argar told Times Radio that there was nothing in the data to suggest the need for further restrictions. “But this data changes from day to day. . . we have to keep everything under control, ”he said. “We need cool, calm heads.”
The minister said it was likely the number of people hospitalized with Covid would continue to rise given the time lag between infection and hospitalization. However, Britain was in a much stronger position than a year ago given the arrival of antiviral drugs, he said.
Wes Streeting, shadow secretary of health, said the government faces the shortage of Covid tests for the public.
“The government needs to get its act together on the testing offer,” Streeting said on Sunday. “And I think the Secretary of Health needs to explain why just three weeks ago he told me in the House of Commons that the availability of tests was not an issue. And yet, now it’s so clear.
Argar insisted that tests were available after deliveries to pharmacies during the Christmas period. “Tests are available. We advise people to continue on the website to refresh it and they will find that every hour more slots are available to reserve one for delivery or for 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 have come into contact with an infected person.
“It’s right that we are following scientific advice and we haven’t had scientific advice to cut it off at this point,” he said.
Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay has ordered colleagues to draw up “robust contingency plans” to deal with coronavirus-related staff absences threatening to disrupt government agencies – including the NHS – as well as businesses British over the next few weeks.
With the number of cases on the rise exacerbating staff shortages that already plague many sectors, public sector leaders have been asked to test the plans against worst-case scenarios of manpower shortages of up to 25%. hundred.