Middle East schoolchildren in Britain have been told to prepare for remote learning in case the surge in Omicron infections means they cannot return in January, The National has learnt.
Private boarding schools have sent pupils home with a warning that if their home country or the UK has a lockdown in January they will have to study remotely.
Other schools across Britain are now also preparing to tackle the increase in cases of the new Covid variant with the potential for thousands of teachers to fall ill.
Teachers were told to prepare online lessons in anticipation that large numbers of pupils may be absent through illness or self-isolating, even if they are not ordered to shut.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has so far held off ordering tighter Covid restrictions, but Scotland and Wales have introduced rules on maximum numbers meeting indoors, beginning on December 27 and lasting three weeks, and England is expected to move to something similar.
Mr Johnson has said that he will not hesitate to act if Omicron data shows new curbs are necessary.
A head teacher of a primary school in south-east England, who sought anonymity, said he could not “take anything for granted following last January’s fiasco” when Britain shut its schools just one day after opening them due to the pandemic.
For many pupils, the disruption has affected three school years.
“We are urging the government to rapidly address the scenario in which we have teachers absent with Omicron making it very difficult for us to open the school,” he said. “If the pandemic gets out of control I could well be left with just a handful of staff in January.”
A leading teachers’ union told The National that just before term ended on December 17 schools were already reporting “significant proportions of teaching staff absent” with between a third and half unavailable to work.
The potential for staff absence or travel restrictions being imposed because of Omicron’s spread has led the UK’s top private schools to take steps for overseas pupils in case of closure.
“Whichever remote location our students are in, either the Gulf or the Far East, if they can't get back into England or there are lockdowns we have made provision for them,” a senior teacher at a Sussex school said.
Students would be given “blended teaching” in which some pupils attend class while others access remotely through iPads and laptops.
“Because of the time difference in places such as the UAE we could only teach them up to lunchtime in England. It’s not ideal but it keeps education going. We will also do pastoral care with online mental health awareness to keep them positive. We essentially have provision for everything ranging from full lockdown, to blended lockdown, to everyone back in school. I'm told this provision is being made by other boarding schools across England.”
The school of 700 pupils has 10 per cent from the Gulf region, 15 per cent from the Far East with a considerable number also living in Europe.
The Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, is already taking measures to ensure that schools remain open by asking retired teachers to come back into the profession to fill the potential gaps.
But a letter passed to The National by NASUWT, the teachers’ union, addressed to Mr Zahawi has pressed him to bring in new measures to help a return on January 4.
Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of NASUWT asked Mr Zahawi to “not delay critical decisions” in order to “avoid a repeat of the confusion and chaos” of last January.
“In light of the evidence emerging daily regarding the impact of the Omicron variant, the latest modelling which suggests that case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths will continue to increase throughout January,” he wrote.
“I must urge you now to consider the immediate introduction of additional education measures … to minimise further disruption to education.”
He called for a staggered return of schools in January with on-site Covid testing as well as “updated risk assessments in light of Omicron” in consultation with staff and trade unions.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school head teachers’ union NAHT, said that the reality of school staff becoming ill with Covid meant there would be “challenges in maintaining provision, be that in-person or remote”.
“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,” he said. “It is very difficult to predict the scale of that disruption at this stage, but it would be naive to pretend that Omicron won’t have an impact on education next term.”
The Thomas’s London Day Schools attended by Prince George and Princess Charlotte, children of Prince William, have also made plans for remote learning.
A spokesman for the group said that “like all schools Thomas’ runs continuous contingency planning in line with Government advice on Covid”.
With almost 300,000 children off school before Christmas, many state schools advised pupils to bring laptops home. One London council has considered delaying the term to allow for widespread testing and deep-cleaning.
But the prime minister’s spokesman told The National that the government “has no plans to close schools in January” and keeping them open is seen as a key priority.