Headteachers of several schools are reportedly concerned over the high number of pupils absent from the classroom as the pandemic persists.
The number of absent children has risen to 235,600, the second highest figure this year, and some schools have already broken up for Christmas.
The total number of absences is an increase of 13 per cent on the last time the survey of school attendance was taken on 25 November. The DfE has also estimated that 2.4 per cent of teachers and school leaders were absent from schools due to Covid-related reasons on 9 December.
Concerns over omicron are based on reports that the variant is more infectious than the previous variant delta.
Several schools in London and Kent have advised parents that their children should take all their equipment home at the end of term in the event that classes have to be held remotely in early 2022, according to The Sun.
Steve Chalke, head of the Oasis Academy chain, told the newspaper that his schools are preparing to return to online lessons in case PM Boris Johnson announces that all learning institutions need to be closed. He also said around 10 per cent of 4,000 teachers at his schools are off sick.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that schools were already seeing “severe low attendance” as many pupils have contracted Covid. He added that one school had about 25 per cent of staff absent for weeks.
Mr Barton added on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: “You can imagine if you can’t then get supply teachers that becomes very difficult to maintain the quality of education.”
A primary school and a secondary school – in the same academy trust – in Bury St Edmunds area of Suffolk have already moved to remote learning “on public health advice” – Mr Barton said. The two schools are Sybil Andrews Academy and Abbots Green Academy.
Abingdon and Witney College in Oxfordshire has moved the majority of its lessons online this week as a “proactive measure” to reduce the number of people in their buildings in the run-up to Christmas.
National Association of Head Teachers general secretary Paul Whiteman said that the increase in Covid-related absences “come as no real surprise given the current situation nationally.”
He added: “However, our concern is that this data is already out of date and actually under-estimates the scale of the issue schools are currently dealing with.
“Over the last few days we have heard from our members that there has been a significant jump in Covid cases in schools, amongst both staff and pupils, as the new variant has started to spread.”
Mr Whiteman also suggested that unless the government moves away from “doing nothing” then schools are likely to close en masse in January.
The NASUWT teaching union has called on the government to stagger the return of pupils to schools in January.
It also called on ministers to publish guidance advising schools and colleges to cancel or postpone non-essential activities and events before Christmas as omicron has quickly become the dominant Covid variant in the UK.
Guidance should clearly state the actions that schools can take when dealing with “compromised” staffing levels, such as sending pupils home if lessons cannot go ahead safely, the union added.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “The Prime Minister’s end-of-term report makes for sorry reading.
“Boris Johnson has not kept his eye on the ball, and his lack of action in ensuring schools have measures in place to keep on top of ever-increasing Covid infection rates is shocking.”
She added that the union has been calling for additional safety mitigations in schools and colleges – such as face coverings, isolation, ventilation, staggered break times and one-way routes – to tackle cases.
“Boris Johnson must bring forward a plan to keep schools and colleges safe and to keep education going,” Dr Bousted said.
Downing Street has said schools should not be closing early for Christmas unless they have been told it is “necessary” for health reasons.
Mr Johnson’s official spokesman suggested that schools would only close en masse if there is an “absolute public health emergency”.
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