Moves to tackle Omicron in English schools not enough, unions warn

Last-minute moves to tackle the spread of the Omicron Covid variant in schools, colleges and universities in England will not be enough to avoid disruption or stop large-scale absences among staff and students, unions and school leaders have warned.

The Department for Education (DfE) announced that masks should be worn indoors in education settings in England, including in classrooms, libraries and corridors, from the start of the new term until the end of January.

It also said it had ordered 7,000 air purification units for nurseries, schools and colleges, “for areas where quick fixes to improve ventilation are not possible, such as being able to open a window”. But the units will not be delivered until next month.

School staff unions, which have repeatedly called for additional measures, criticised the government for failing to take action earlier as Covid infections rose rapidly among students and staff.

“An increase in the use of face coverings and better ventilation are welcome but should have been in place before Christmas to have slowed the infection in schools,” said Jon Richard, Unison’s assistant general secretary.

Data from the Office for National Statistics shows school-age children have been among the most likely to be infected, with more than one in 20 primary-age children and one in 35 secondary-age children testing positive for Covid in December.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the biggest challenge facing schools remained staff shortages. “While schools and colleges will do their very best to minimise the impact on pupils, as they always do, there is a possibility that this will mean that some classes and year groups have to be sent home for short periods of time to learn remotely.”

Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the order of 7,000 purifiers would be “completely inadequate” for providing clean air. “The fact that the government have provided the extra purifiers shows that it recognises the problem but with over 300,000 classrooms in England they have failed to provide an effective solution,” Bousted said.

Patrick Roach, the general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said the government needed to go further to minimise disruption throughout the academic year, including more on-site testing in schools to quickly tackle outbreaks.

“We still need to see a credible and funded plan from the government that will deliver immediate support and flexibility for those schools experiencing teacher shortages,” Roach said.

Ofsted, the schools inspectorate for England, will not inspect secondary schools or colleges on the first week of term. Current school leaders who also act as Ofsted inspectors will not be asked to carry out inspections, while schools affected by Covid staff absences should request deferrals of inspection visits.

The DfE said the mask advice for students in year 7 and above would remain until 26 January, when it would be reviewed alongside other mitigation measures. The advice also applies to further and higher education providers such as colleges and universities.

The advice is for masks to be worn in classrooms, corridors and other communal areas indoors but that they did not need to be worn outdoors or during “exercise or strenuous activity” such as PE classes. In primary schools the DfE’s current advice is that masks should only be worn by staff in corridors and communal areas.


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