Live updates: follow the latest news on Covid-19 variant Omicron
Secondary school students in England will once again be asked to wear masks in classrooms in a bid to limit the threat to children’s education posed by the Omicron variant.
The government said the move will “maximise the number of children in school” for the “maximum amount of time” in light of the recent surge in the highly-transmissible strain of the virus.
It stressed that the recommendation for both schools and colleges will be temporary, remaining in place until January 26, when Plan B regulations are scheduled to expire. At this point it will be reviewed.
An additional 7,000 air cleaning units will also be provided to schools, colleges and early years settings to improve ventilation in teaching spaces, the Department for Education said.
Secondary schools have already been told they will get a break from Ofsted in the first week of term, as they carry out on-site testing.
But the government clarified on Sunday that, beyond this, the watchdog will encourage schools, colleges and early years settings that are “significantly impacted by Covid-related staff absence” to ask for a deferral to their inspection.
And inspectors who are also school, college or early years leaders will not be asked to carry out their Ofsted duties for the time being. The temporary measure will apply from the start of January.
Headteachers welcomed the reintroduction of masks in classrooms, saying schools and colleges would take it “in their stride”.
Face coverings are already recommended in communal areas for older students and staff.
The news comes as six trade unions representing education staff across the country urged the government to offer improved financial support to schools and colleges for the costs of supply staff to cover for Covid-related absences.
"While there are obvious drawbacks to the use of face coverings in classrooms, it is clear that the Omicron variant poses a very significant additional risk to education with the potential for further widespread disruption of schools, colleges, and young people," said Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).
“It is absolutely essential that everything possible is done to reduce transmission and ensure that children remain in school, and we therefore support the reintroduction of face coverings in classrooms for students in year 7 and above.
“Face coverings are already advised in communal areas for pupils in year 7 and above. Pupils are accustomed to their use and we are sure the reintroduction of face coverings in classrooms is something that schools and colleges will take in their stride.”
Mr Barton said his union had been calling for additional air cleaning units “for some time”, adding that they should have come “earlier” – but the move was “better late than never”.
“We await further details about the eligibility criteria for these devices and we urge the government to make sure this scheme is as accessible as possible,” he said.
But he warned that disruption to staffing levels caused by the Omicron variant could mean some classes and year groups are forced to learn from home.
“All of this is a recognition by the government that the spring term will be extremely challenging for schools and colleges,” he said.
“The biggest problem they face is the likelihood of high levels of staff absence caused by the prevalence of the Omicron variant.
“While schools and colleges will do their very best to minimise the impact on pupils, as they always do, there is a possibility that this will mean that some classes and year groups have to be sent home for short periods of time to learn remotely.”
The government said the 7,000 new air purifiers would be for areas where “quick fixes to improve ventilation are not possible” – for example, where windows cannot be opened.
But Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said this did not go far enough.
“Seven thousand more air purifiers is something, but it is completely inadequate for what should be a basic human right, the provision of clean air in every classroom in every educational setting,” she said.
“The fact that the government have provided the extra purifiers shows that it recognises the problem but with over 300,000 classrooms in England they have failed to provide an effective solution.”
Dr Bousted also called on Ofsted to suspend all inspections other than those sparked by safeguarding fears.
“It is hard to see how Ofsted will function without the services of serving headteachers,” she said.
“Rather than limping along, Ofsted should suspend all inspections other than safeguarding concerns.
“Given the current sky-high rates of infection, every school will be significantly affected by Covid. The focus should be on the essential aim of providing education continuity for as many pupils as possible, not on jumping through Ofsted hoops.”
“Being in the classroom is undoubtedly the very best place for children and I’m looking forward to welcoming pupils back next week to continue their face-to-face learning, which is so important for their education and wellbeing," said Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi.
“There is no doubt that the Omicron variant presents challenges, but the entire education sector has responded with a Herculean effort, and for that I thank each and every one of you.
“The Prime Minister and I have been clear that education is our number one priority. These measures will bolster our support for schools as we do everything in our power to minimise disruption.”