Schools in England face Christmas holidays uncertain over re-opening

Schools in England face Christmas holidays uncertain over re-opening, as Scotland says it is not considering closures, but Wales tells heads to plan for ‘very high risk’ scenario and prepare to take lessons online

  • England schools break up for Christmas today but some have already closed
  • Unions and teachers have urged government for guidance about January return
  • Wales is warning staff to prepare for ‘high risk scenario’ and for the possibility of moving lessons online in the new year
  • Scottish Government however said they were ‘not considering school closures’  

Schools in England are being left to decide for themselves how to plan for next term in the face of ever-rising cases of Omicron, as unions called again on the government to tell head teachers ‘promptly and clearly’ about what new measures to expect next year. 

As students and teachers across the country prepared to head home today for the Christmas holidays, it was still unclear whether classrooms will be full again in January and what, if any additional restrictions schools in England might face. 

Unions had called on the government to tell schools before the end of term what the plan is for reopening in January, but were only given vague advice about getting vaccinated and to continue Covid testing.

Meanwhile in Wales, teachers have been told to plan for a ‘high risk scenario’, and in Scotland the government insisted today closing schools would only be as a ‘last resort’.

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: ‘Schools and colleges in England have been asked by the government to review their contingency arrangements during the final week of this term in order to be prepared for measures which might be introduced next term because of the risk posed by the Omicron variant of Covid-19. 

Schools in England are being left to decide for themselves how to plan for next term in the face of ever rising cases of Omicron, as unions called again on the government to tell head teachers ‘promptly and clearly’ about what new measures to expect next year. Pictured: A school in North London

‘It is imperative that the government communicates the introduction of any additional measures to schools and colleges promptly and clearly. It does not have a good record on either front.’ 

The Guardian has reported of ‘scores’ of primary and secondary schools in England and Wales sending children off for Christmas early because of staff shortages caused by illness and Covid-related isolation.

Parents at Mersey Drive community primary school in Bury were told by the school: ‘We have reached the point where we are unable to maintain safe staffing levels.

‘After consultation with the local authority we have reluctantly had to make the decision to close early for Christmas in order to keep everyone safe.’

But pupils and teachers going home not knowing when they will return has prompted fears of a repeat of last year when staff scrambled to reopen following a last minute decision by the government.

Fears over schools’ ability to return next year have peaked because of rising infections due to the Omicron variant of coronavirus

The Guardian has reported of ‘scores’ of primary and secondary schools in England and Wales sending children off for Christmas early because of staff shortages caused by illness and Covid-related isolation

Operational guidance made for schools by the government has left teachers and parents confused after it appeared to suggest each school is responsible for making its own decision.

‘Schools and trusts should work closely with parents and carers (future references to parents should be read as including carers), staff and unions when agreeing the best approaches for their circumstances,’ the document says.

One teacher working at a school in the East of England told MailOnline that staff were being left in the dark about decisions.

‘We’ll be the last to know but I think they will do everything they can before closing the schools again,’ they said.

‘Teachers will find out [what’s happening] when it’s announced to the nation and will be expected to spring into action – and we basically will.’

The teacher added: ‘In the meantime, I’ll be bringing my laptop home each day – ready for remote learning.

‘I really don’t want to go back online, but it’s looking pretty inevitable.’ 

In Wales, known for its draconian restrictions under First Minister Mark Drakeford, Welsh Education Minister Jeremy Miles (pictured) told head teachers the start of term would be delayed by two days so that they could get plans in place before lessons started up again

 Staff have clearly been told to plan for a ‘high risk scenario’ and also for the possibility of moving lessons partly or wholly online. Pictured: Roath Park Primary School in Cardiff

The picture in the devolved administrations of Wales and Scotland was however slightly clearer. 

In Wales, known for its draconian restrictions under First Minister Mark Drakeford, teachers have been told to plan for a ‘high risk scenario’ and also for the possibility of moving lessons partly or wholly online. 

Government worried education catch-up plan is ‘insufficient’ 

The government has predicted that its approach to education recovery plan ‘may be insufficient’ to combat the learning lost during the pandemic lockdowns.

Department for Education warns in its annual accounts that the risk of catch-up efforts failing to address learning loss was ‘critical/very likely’ as of March.

While there was no update on the next nine months of the year, the report ‘in-year direction’ note said the situation was ‘worsening’. 

The warning was made in the ‘Significant risks’ section of the report, which also looks at the effects of a cyber hack and widespread failure of the early years market.

On the catch up plan, the report noted that since schools have re‑opened, the main challenge would be to ‘limiting differential lost learning’ as pupils are forced out of school by positive Covid tests or to isolate because of contact tracing. 

‘Despite the initial mitigations and continuing work, this risk is likely to remain one of the Department’s principal risks for a sustained period,’ it adds. 

The Welsh Education Minister Jeremy Miles told head teachers the start of term would be delayed by two days so that they could get plans in place before lessons started up again.

‘I am providing all schools with two planning days at the start of the spring term. This will allow time for schools to assess staffing capacity and put the necessary measures in place to support the return of all learners,’ Miles said.

Meanwhile Scotland said today they were not considering school closures, insisting the move would only be as a ‘last resort’.

This is despite First Minister Nicola Sturgeon issuing other new restrictions aimed at stopping the spread of Omicron which she said was now the dominant strain in Scotland.

A spokesperson said: ‘The Scottish Government is not considering school closures.

‘As the First Minister has made clear, protecting the education of children and young people remains a top priority.

‘National school closures would only be an absolute last resort. COVID-19 protections will be reviewed on a daily basis due to the rapid increase in cases of the Omicron variant.’

A Department for Education (DfE) spokesperson said: ‘As we approach the Christmas break, with many schools ending term today, we are incredibly grateful to teachers and all education staff for their efforts to keep young people in face-to-face education.

‘We know children and young people want to be in the classroom and it is the very best place for their education and wellbeing.

‘In response to rising cases and the Omicron variant we have asked older students and staff to wear face coverings in communal areas, and the Education Secretary has written to all education staff to explain what we’re doing to support the workforce, boost supply teacher capacity, and keep children in school.

‘We strongly encourage students, staff and families to keep testing regularly and get their booster jab – or second jab if they are 12-15 – as soon as possible.’

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