Entire year groups of school students could be sent home by headteachers if the Omicron variant leads to staffing crises when schools return next month, union bosses have warned.
Education bosses have warned the Prime Minister that those students set to take exams would have to be prioritised if there is a shortage of staff due to illness in January.
While the Government has insisted that keeping schools open is ‘the number one priority’, the biggest threat to education would be if the rise in cases of the highly transmissible Omicron variant means staff absences sky rocket due to illness or self-isolation.
The latest DfE figures showed that 2.4 per cent of teachers and school leaders were absent from schools in England due to Covid-19 related reasons on December 9, up from 2 per cent on November 25.
Unions have warned that whole schools could return to remote learning in January as a result while one union head has said schools will be forced to ‘prioritise’ certain year groups.
Unions say entire year groups of school students could be sent home by headteachers if the Omicron variant leads to a shortage in teaching staff when schools return next month
Rising Omicron variant cases has lead schools to plan for worst case scenarios in January
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told the Telegraph that headteachers were ‘hoping for the best but planning for the worst’ and could send entire year groups home if teacher shortages becomes an issue.
He told The Telegraph: ‘If you have a fixed pool available of those who can teach young people, then the only final resort schools and colleges have is to start thinking about the certain year groups that should be prioritised in the short term.’
Mr Barton said that one approach would be to keep those students taking exams – Year 11 and Year 13 – in schools for face-to-face lessons, while younger year groups are sent home to learn remotely.
He added: ‘We feel we owe it to the young people doing GCSEs and A-levels because and want to make it as normal as they can be.’
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Barton said that schools cannot be treated like other parts of national infrastructure.
He added: ‘There is a limited pool of those teachers and we know even from the week running into Christmas there were some schools running with 25 per cent staff off.
‘That in some cases will be 30 members of staff not being able to be there which is unsustainable even before Christmas so we don’t know what next week will look like.
‘We’re not catastrophising that but we are saying we must have a real sense of realism around this.
The Prime Minister has told Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi that he is ‘absolutely determined’ to have children back in class and that keeping schools open is the ‘number one priority’, it was reported yesterday.
However, hours later, headteachers’ unions warned that rising Covid cases may force them to close anyway – even without national restrictions – due to staff sickness.
Unions have warned that whole schools could return to remote learning in January despite Boris Johnson vowing to keep them open
It comes amid fears that Christmas gatherings will hasten the spread of the Omicron variant before the start of term.
Many schools already have contingency plans for remote learning in January and have sent home textbooks and electronic devices just in case.
Mr Johnson and Mr Zahawi are understood to have discussed schools almost daily, with a source telling the Sunday Times: ‘There is a shared commitment across government to make sure they stay open.’
But Mr Barton said yesterday: ‘Schools should be the very last thing that closes in any further restrictions. But words aren’t enough.
‘The Government must back up this aim with material support to minimise transmission of the virus.
Geoff Barton, head of the headteachers union ASCL, said schools will be forced to prioritise those students who are taking exams while other year groups are sent to learn from home
‘Otherwise the danger is that there simply won’t be enough staff available to keep schools fully open.’
Paul Whiteman, of the NAHT, added: ‘It does seem as though choppy waters lie ahead and that some form of disruption at the start of next term is looking sadly inevitable… It would be naive to pretend that Omicron won’t have an impact.’
Meanwhile Kevin Courtney, of the National Education Union, called for measures such as wearing masks in classrooms and isolation for close contacts of Covid cases for ‘the best chance of limiting infection rates.’
In November, exams regulator Ofqual published guidance advising that A-level and GCSE students should sit termly assessments to ensure there was enough evidence to determine their grades in case exams were cancelled again.
Ofqual published guidance for teachers on how they should gather evidence to assess pupils’ performance if exams could not go ahead in 2022, with teachers advised to assess students ‘under exam-like conditions wherever possible’ to help inform teacher-assessed grades (TAGs) if needed.
Schools plan to ‘send whole year groups home’ amid rising Covid cases among teachers, unions warn