Schools in England to move some lessons online as Omicron surges

Covid threatens big staff shortages in sector as teachers with virus forced to isolate

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 British 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 United Kingdom, 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,” Mr 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.

"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 British 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.

Mr Courtney said the government should do more, including accelerating the vaccination of older children and ordering more air-purifying units. There are nearly 25,000 schools in England.

‘Last resort’

British health minister Edward Argar said on Sunday he saw no reason for new Covid restrictions for now, describing them as an "absolute last resort" if the situation worsened.

Mr Argar told Times Radio in the UK 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-19 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,” Mr 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.”

Mr 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.

Mr 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. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022