Schools in England intend to move some lessons to the internet, as widespread absenteeism caused by the rapid spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant has prompted the government to encourage principals to adopt a “more flexible” approach to learning.
In an open letter released Sunday, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told school leaders they should “do everything” to ensure continued face-to-face learning. But unlike previous directives, he acknowledged that they should consider moving some lessons online if staff shortages make it impossible.
The decision comes as the rapid expansion of Omicron leads to record Covid-19 cases in the UK, threatening a severe shortage of staff in the education sector as teachers with the virus are forced to isolate ahead of spring, which for many schools begins on Tuesday.
“If operational challenges caused by labor shortages. . . make face-to-face teaching impossible, I would encourage you to consider ways to implement a flexible approach to learning, ”Zahawi wrote.
That could include deploying teachers to “maximize on-site education for as many students as possible” while offering flexible distance learning to other students, he said.
The council 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, secretary general of the National Association of Principals, said that with a large absence of staff, “inevitable” school leaders should “believe they will make adjustments” based on their “specific circumstances”.
However, some said the letter shows that not enough is being done to keep the children in school.
“It seems to be just bowing to the inevitable, not introducing new flexibility,” said Kevin Courtney, secretary general 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 was previously in effect last spring. It was said to have ordered 7,000 air filtration units for schools.
High school students will also be tested for Covid before returning to school, which will delay the start of the semester for some days.
But Courtney said the government should 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, principal of Rotherham, said school leaders were frustrated when they learned of the new guidelines from media coverage just days before the start of the semester.
“We’ve known about Omicron and high transfer rates for many weeks and we didn’t have a strategy until we heard about the announcement in the Sunday paper,” he said.
“I think everyone will try to avoid switching to online learning, but accept that we could be forced to do that if there is a large absence of staff.”
Edward Argar, the health minister, said on Sunday that he saw no reason for Covid’s new restrictions for now, describing them as an “absolute last resort” if the situation worsens.
Argar told Times Radio that there was nothing in the data to suggest the need for further curbs. “But that data is changing day by day. . . we have to follow everything, ”he said. “We need cool, calm heads.”
The minister said it was likely that the number of people going to hospitals because of Covid would continue to grow given the gap between infection and hospitalization. However, Britain was in a much stronger position than a year ago with the advent of antiviral drugs, he said.
Wes Streeting, the shadow health minister, said the government needs to tackle the lack of tests on Covid for the public.
“The government must agree on the delivery of the test,” Streeting said Sunday. “And I think the Minister of Health should explain why he told me only three weeks ago in the House of Commons that the availability of tests is not a problem. And now it’s so clear. “
Argar insisted that there are tests available after delivery to pharmacies during the Christmas period. “Tests are available. We advise people to keep working on the website to refresh it and they will find that more places are available every hour to book for delivery or pick-up at the pharmacy, ”he said.
Argar said the government would resist calls to reduce isolation to just five days – instead of seven – for people who have come in contact with an infected person.
“It’s right that we follow scientific advice and we didn’t have scientific advice to reduce that at the moment,” he said.
Steve Barclay, a cabinet minister, has ordered colleagues to draw up “strong contingency plans” to tackle coronavirus-related staff shortages that threaten to disrupt government agencies – including the NHS – as well as businesses in the UK over the coming weeks.
With a growing number of exacerbating staff shortages already plaguing many sectors, public sector leaders have been asked to test plans against worst-case workforce absenteeism by up to 25 percent.