‘Very high’ levels of Covid staff absences could send learning online in new year, heads warn

School leaders say this is biggest threat to schools staying open next term

Zoe Tidman
Thursday 16 December 2021 15:19 GMT
<p>Pupils could face remote learning if there are ‘very high’ levels of staff absences due to the Omicron Covid variant next term, a union warns</p>

Pupils could face remote learning if there are ‘very high’ levels of staff absences due to the Omicron Covid variant next term, a union warns

“Very high” levels of staff absences linked to Covid could result in pupils learning remotely in the new year, headteachers have warned.

School leaders told The Independent staff pressures posed the biggest threat to staying open to students in the next term, amid rising cases and warnings over the new Omicron variant.

The education secretary said at the weekend he would “do everything” in his power to ensure all schools are open in January.

But headteachers said this could be affected by staff being unable to come into work due to Covid.

“Everybody hopes that education will resume as near to normal as possible in January after the Christmas holidays,” Geoff Barton from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) told The Independent.

He added: “The difficulty will be if there are very high levels of staff absence as a result of the impact of the Omicron variant of Covid-19.

“It is likely that this would result in schools having to send home classes or year groups, or closing for on-site teaching, for short periods of time and providing remote education for those at home.”

The UK reported its highest-ever number of daily Covid cases on Wednesday, as health officials urged the public to cut back on socialising in the run-up to Christmas.

Earlier this week, the head of the UK Health Security Agency said the Omicron variant was “probably the most significant threat we’ve had since the start of the pandemic”.

One headteacher in Liverpool told The Independent he was not expecting any official order to shut, but had been preparing children to use online software incase a shortage of teachers means they have to.

“The only reason we would be allowed to close and ask the children to use remote learning we believe, is if we cannot staff the classes,” the primary school leader said.

“Lots of schools around me have been forced to close classes or year groups due to high volumes of staff illness and a severe shortage of supply staff.”

Pepe DiIasio, a secondary school headteacher in Rotherham, told The Independent he thought online learning was “very unlikely” in the new year.

This was “unless large numbers of teachers are infected by new variants,” he added.

Helen Osgood, from Voice Community, the education section of the Community Union, said: “As with infections from the Delta variant, the picture with Omicron is likely to vary across the country, with some areas more affected by staff and pupil absences than others.”

“However, if schools don’t have enough staff available and can’t access sufficient supply staff, they may have to close for periods of time, even if they want to remain open.”

The Department for Education (DfE) estimated 2.4 per cent of teachers were not in school last Thursday due to a Covid-related reason - up from two per cent on 25 November.

Most of these - making up 1.7 per cent of teachers and school leaders in England - were absent from open schools due to a confirmed case of Covid.

The DfE has been approached for comment.

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