Schools have been left in chaos and confusion as growing Covid cases meant a quarter of a million pupils were out of classrooms – and it wasn’t clear whether they would return in January.

Dozens of schools have closed across England, with many choosing to revert back to online learning for the last few days of term before Christmas.

With just a few days to go before the end of term, schools and union leaders have urged the government to provide clear guidance on closures and reopening in 2022.

New attendance figures show some 235,600 students were absent from their school last week, the second highest figure this year, and around 17,000 teachers were also believed to be at home. 

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said schools across the country were suffering from ‘very severe low attendance’ as the Omicron variant continues to spread.

Some of the schools have had to close because of a lack of staff, but others were warned about the health risks of remaining open after seeing high infection rates. 

Two schools in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, were told to shut this week by local public health teams.

Schools have been left in chaos and confusion as growing Covid cases meant a quarter of a million pupils were out of classrooms - and it wasn't clear whether they would return in January

Schools have been left in chaos and confusion as growing Covid cases meant a quarter of a million pupils were out of classrooms - and it wasn't clear whether they would return in January

Schools have been left in chaos and confusion as growing Covid cases meant a quarter of a million pupils were out of classrooms – and it wasn’t clear whether they would return in January

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL)

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL)

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders' union the NAHT

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders' union the NAHT

Education union leaders including Geoff Barton of the ASCL (left) and Paul Whiteman of NAHT (right) have called on the government to give clear guidance on the return to school in January after ministers said the couldn’t promise school would not have to shut

Mr Barton, speaking on BBC Breakfast, said the government body had taken the decision away from the headmaster on public health grounds.

There are also concerns that the expected return of pupils in January could be staggered out or even delayed because of fears over the spread of the virus during winter. 

Mum ‘heartbroken’ after school cancels nativity play for a second year

Parents at a North Tyneside school have been left ‘heartbroken’ after staff banned them from watching their childrens’ nativity play – but chose to open a fundraiser shop.

Tony Rigg, the headteacher at Amberley Primary School in Killingworth said Governors made the ‘difficult decision’ due to the rate of infection across North East.

Instead of the traditional in-person Christmas play, children will be sent home with a filmed version for families to watch together at home.

The decision, the school said, ‘was based on the number of adults that would be gathered in the internal school hall with no direct external ventilation.’ 

Meanwhile, the school has also arranged for 7 to 11-year-old pupils to take part in a ‘socially distanced choir concert’ that will perform outside the school each morning as parents drop-off their children.

The changes have however left parents at the school ‘upset’, after they faced similar disappointment last year.

‘The headteacher was supposed to run a Christmas nativity at school but he’s decided to make it digital and is not inviting parents for the second year in a row,’ one mother said.

‘Many of the parents were upset because on Monday he decided to go ahead with a Christmas pop-up Shop in the yard.

‘This means that he can organise something to bring money into the school, but we are not able to see personally our children singing for example in the yard without breaking any Covid rules. 

‘My heart broke when my little one said “mummy you are coming to see me in the play?”

‘The children are missing a lot and it’s been absolutely horrible.’

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It is reported that several schools in London and Kent have told parents take home all their children’s books and a laptop each in case they don’t come back to the classroom next month.

On Monday, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there ‘are no guarantees’ that schools will be allowed to reopen in January.

This outraged public campaigners and education unions, with some saying the government needed to do more to avoid any scenario in which the next school term could be disrupted.

Reacting to the shocking attendance figures yesterday, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: ‘Everyone is concerned about how this will play out over the next few weeks and the implications for January.

‘No-one wants to see the sort of disruption to education that we experienced last winter. However, we are already seeing signs that schools are coming under increasing pressure.

‘The government needs to think very carefully about the mitigations it needs to take to keep schools open next term. Doing nothing is not a plausible or realistic option.

‘It is essential that the government does everything in its power now to reduce the spread of Covid in schools. That should include reviewing mitigation measures that could be reintroduced whilst transmission rates are high. 

He criticised the government and local public health teams for giving ‘contradictory advice’ on what schools should be doing in the run  up to Christmas.

Steve Chalke, head of the Oasis Academy chain, said his schools are preparing to bring back bubbles, rota lessons, staggered starts and an extension of mask wearing.

He said: ‘We are quite prepared for online learning. If we get to January 2 and the Prime Minister says all schools need to be shut, we are prepared.

‘January is the great unknown. But Omicron is sweeping London now and it is going to sweep the country.’

Other unions and headteachers have called for the two-week Christmas holiday to be extended into January and a staggered start to the new term in 2022.  

NASUWT general secretary Dr Patrick Roach has written to education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi calling for masks in classrooms now and a staggered start to the new term in 2022 for secondary schools, meaning children will be forced into online learning.

He said: ‘We ask you to avoid a repeat of the confusion and chaos which last year impacted negatively on public and parental confidence and hampered the hard work of teachers and school and college leaders in their preparations at the start of 2021. 

‘An immediate announcement from the government on additional measures for schools and colleges is, we believe, essential before the majority of schools and colleges close for the Christmas break.’

Some 235,600 students were absent from their school last week, the second highest figure this year, and around 17,000 teachers were also believed to be at home. Pictured: A school in Halifax, northwest England

Some 235,600 students were absent from their school last week, the second highest figure this year, and around 17,000 teachers were also believed to be at home. Pictured: A school in Halifax, northwest England

Some 235,600 students were absent from their school last week, the second highest figure this year, and around 17,000 teachers were also believed to be at home. Pictured: A school in Halifax, northwest England

Nativity plays and other Christmas festivities are being widely axed and filmed instead as parents are kept away. Pictured: A Knutsford school last year

Nativity plays and other Christmas festivities are being widely axed and filmed instead as parents are kept away. Pictured: A Knutsford school last year

Nativity plays and other Christmas festivities are being widely axed and filmed instead as parents are kept away. Pictured: A Knutsford school last year

There is however disagreement on what measures should be taken, with a spokesperson for the ASCL telling the Mail that they do not support the idea of a staggered return.

Clare Wagner, head of Henrietta Barnett School in Barnet, north London, told the Evening Standard: ‘Not only does testing take ages but you can’t have pupils in school before the test, and they can’t go into lessons until the results have come through so you have to have a staggered start’.

Headteachers say that there is ‘chaos’ in Britain’s education system with children already being taught online and now not returning to the classroom until January at the earliest.

Schools in areas with high infection rates such as London, the south-east and the East Midlands, say they are sending home entire year groups because they don’t have the teachers and supply teachers available. Unions claim that in some schools up to half of staff are off sick, with some missing from work since November.

Downing Street has said that schools should not be closing early for the Christmas holidays, unless they are ordered to on public health grounds. 

The return to home schooling for thousands of children came days after an alarming report warned that almost every child in the country has fallen behind at school because of Covid lockdowns – with pupils battling ‘endemic’ loneliness, boredom and misery during the pandemic.  

Up to half the teaching workforce is unavailable for work due to Covid-related absence in some schools, the NASUWT union has claimed.  And parents are being told to stay away from nativities and Christmas concerts, sometimes with only a few hours notice. 

 

 

 

The Government should publish guidance advising schools to cancel or postpone non-essential activities and events immediately, as well as move to online staff and parental meetings, the NASUWT union says, but many schools have already axed nativities and Christmas concerts.  

The education secretary Nadhim Zahawi (pictured arriving at Broadcasting House on Sunday) has also refused to rule out school closures in the new year

The education secretary Nadhim Zahawi (pictured arriving at Broadcasting House on Sunday) has also refused to rule out school closures in the new year

The education secretary Nadhim Zahawi (pictured arriving at Broadcasting House on Sunday) has also refused to rule out school closures in the new year

A staggered return of pupils at the start of January should be considered and additional on-site testing facilities should be provided up until the February half-term, the union says. 

With entire year groups being sent home, Mr Zahawi has hit back and said: ‘School attendance remains mandatory…The evidence is clear that the best place for children is in a classroom’.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), has said schools across the country are seeing ‘very severe low attendance’ as the Omicron variant spreads.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: ‘Listening to the speculation and the news, and certainly the emails I’ve been getting from members, you are getting some pockets of very severe low attendance, partly young people, partly staff.

‘One (school) has emailed me this morning saying 25% of staff have been off for three weeks, you can imagine if you can’t then get supply teachers that becomes very difficult to maintain the quality of education.’

Little-known minister for jabs gets sidelined

Vaccines Minister Maggie Throup was sidelined yesterday as Sajid Javid said he will now be ‘personally running’ the booster programme.

The Health Secretary said he is taking charge of the rollout and will be responsible for its success.

He insisted that Ms Throup is ‘doing a really important job’ but his decision to lead the initiative is likely to prompt questions over her future.

Her predecessor, Nadhim Zahawi, had a much more prominent role. He attended Cabinet and was frequently seen on TV. Miss Throup took over the role in September after Mr Zahawi was promoted to Education Secretary.

Asked who was in charge, Mr Javid told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Maggie Throup is the Vaccines Minister. She is doing a really important job.’

Pressed on whether she was in charge of the rollout, Mr Javid said: ‘I am personally running this programme.’

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Downing Street said yesterday that schools should not be closing early for the Christmas holidays, unless they are ordered to on public health grounds. 

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said there were currently no plans to put any restrictions on schooling, adding that suspension of face to face lessons was only ever done if ‘it was an absolute public health emergency’.

In response to the increase in cases of the highly transmissible variant, teaching unions have called for the staggered return of pupils in January and for additional onsite testing facilities for schools.

They also said the Government should publish further guidance advising schools and colleges to cancel or postpone non-essential activities or events, as well as move to online staff and parents meetings.

Meanwhile, reports suggest some schools have been closing early amid rising concern of the Omicron variant.

In response, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: ‘Certainly we do not think anyone should be closing schools early unless they have received advice from a local director of public health that it is necessary on public health grounds.

‘We wouldn’t want to see that happening routinely just as a precaution because education is vital and we have seen sadly because of the public health crisis children have to miss face to face education and so it is very important that we maintain schooling as much as possible.’

It comes after the health secretary refused to rule out school closures when quizzed this morning as the Government continues its battle to control the spread of Omicron cases.

Sajid Javid said he did not want children to go back to learning from home after Christmas as he urged the nation to sign up for their booster jabs but said ‘there are no guarantees’ schools would be open.

Many individual schools have closed early for Christmas in defiance of Whitehall advice and it is understood several local authorities are considering similar moves to curb Omicron cases

Many individual schools have closed early for Christmas in defiance of Whitehall advice and it is understood several local authorities are considering similar moves to curb Omicron cases

Many individual schools have closed early for Christmas in defiance of Whitehall advice and it is understood several local authorities are considering similar moves to curb Omicron cases

 

Asked on LBC whether this remained a possibility, Mr Javid said: ‘Well, I don’t want to see that or any of these kinds of measures. I’m just going to focus on everything else we need to be doing, especially the booster programme.’

Website crashes in stampede for jabs  

The NHS website crashed yesterday as record numbers rushed to book a booster in the hope of saving their Christmas.

Boris Johnson’s promise to give every adult a third jab by the end of the year triggered a surge in demand that left parts of the UK’s health infrastructure unable to cope. Queues of up to five hours built up at some vaccination centres.

The Government was also forced to suspend temporarily the online availability of home lateral flow kits on the eve of rolling out a new testing regime. From today, all contacts of those who have tested positive for Covid have to take a daily rapid test for a week in a bid to prevent the virus from spreading further.

The weekend saw a record number of booster bookings on the NHS website, with 749,000 slots snapped up. A further 110,000 slots had been booked by 9am yesterday.

Problems with the site began on Sunday afternoon. The Prime Minister’s later TV address led to a further surge, with many of those trying to book met with a message telling them that they had been placed in a queue. Others were unable to get this far and were instead told the site had ‘technical difficulties’. No10 yesterday suggested ‘further capacity’ would be built into the service in coming days to deal with the increased demand.

 

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He added: ‘I’d say this… if you are asking me for guarantees, I will just say – as the Health Secretary, of course, I’m not the Education Secretary – as the Health Secretary, that there are, when it comes to our fight against this pandemic, there are no guarantees.

‘But what we do know that works is, in this case, a booster shot of the vaccine.’ 

The health secretary’s comments echo those made by the education secretary yesterday who also offered no guarantee that schools would still be open in the new year.

Nadhim Zahawi said the Government was still learning about the variant and that it was trying to ensure schools were protected.  

Asked by the BBC‘s Andrew Marr if he could make the promise that schools won’t close, he said: ‘We are absolutely working to make sure that all schools are open, that they’re protected.

‘I will do everything in my power. We are still learning about this variant. We know that a booster works.

‘Get boosted, protect yourself, protect your community and let’s get through this and transition this from pandemic to endemic.’

An Omicron Covid-19 case was reported in a primary school for the first time last week.

All year five students, aged nine or ten, at Manor Community Primary School in Kent, were advised to stay home and get tested.

Those who are unvaccinated and come into close contact with a person who has been infected with Omicron must self-isolate for 10 days.

As of tomorrow, people who are fully vaccinated and identified as a contact of someone with Covid – whether Omicron or not – should take an NHS rapid lateral flow test every day for 7 days to help slow the spread, the Government said this weekend. 

Pupils’ parents received an email informing them of the situation and a mobile testing unit was dispatched to the school in Keary Road on Friday.

As a precaution, the UK Health Security Agency is carrying out testing on some pupils in key stage two groups. 

The news came days after another Omicron case was confirmed at nearby Northfleet Technology College. 

Health experts fear the Omicron variant could be more contagious than other strains, although it is understood the vaccine remains effective at preventing severe symptoms and hospitalisation in most cases. 

The UK’s Omicron outbreak surged by 50 per cent in a day today after more than 1,500 Britons were diagnosed with the mutant virus and the first death was confirmed.

Officials confirmed another 1,576 cases of the highly-evolved variant over the past 24 hours, bringing the total number to 4,713 — however this is believed to be a vast underestimate with the true number several times greater because not all positive tests are analysed for variants.

Fearing a rise in Omicron infections, new coronavirus restrictions have come into force around the country as part of the government’s Plan B to tackle the virus over the winter period.

Many individual schools have closed early for Christmas in defiance of Whitehall advice, with some citing their own Covid outbreaks and a lack of staff.

It is thought a number of local authorities are considering similar moves in a bid to curb Omicron cases. 

Last month, Darwen Aldridge Enterprise Studio, a secondary school which teaches pupils aged 13 to 19, said that it was shuttering its doors temporarily due to teachers being off with Covid.

And Finlay Community Primary School in Gloucestershire said it was partially closing – with pupils in reception moving to online learning – due to ‘an increase in Covid-19 cases’ and ‘low staffing levels’. 

Among the schools already closed for Christmas are Abbots Green Academy and Sybil Andrews Academy in Bury St Edmonds, Suffolk.

Pupils have switched to online learning and it is not known if they will return in January in-person yet.  

Other schools cancelled nativities and Christmas festivities amidst growing concern over the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

It comes as a public health chief called for an extension of the school holiday to act as a ‘firebreak’ against Covid.

Professor Dominic Harrison, director of public health for Blackburn with Darwen, said adding a week either side of the two-week break could reduce transmission to ‘vulnerable family members’ and protect schools in the New Year.

A firebreak, he said, would be the best way to contain Omicron after the Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases had found the strain will have a ‘very significant impact’ on schools.

His proposal was echoed by a senior leader of the National Education Union whose members are unhappy at being exposed to pupils with Covid.

But yesterday campaigners urged councils to keep schools open.

The NASUWT has said the Government should stagger the return of pupils to schools in January amid concerns about the Omicron variant and set up onsite testing facilities

The NASUWT has said the Government should stagger the return of pupils to schools in January amid concerns about the Omicron variant and set up onsite testing facilities

The NASUWT has said the Government should stagger the return of pupils to schools in January amid concerns about the Omicron variant and set up onsite testing facilities

Molly Kingsley, of parent group UsForThem, said: ‘Schools are quite literally essential for children. Closing them is nothing short of a moral crime.

‘Just as it would be inconceivable to close power stations, hospitals, essential retail, it must be inconceivable to close schools.’  

After the Christmas holidays last year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told parents on Sunday January 3 to send their primary-age children back to school.

But on the evening of the next day, he announced a national lockdown for England – with all schools closed to the majority of pupils.

The Department for Education was approached for a comment. 

Source: Daily Mail

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