Schools across the UK are re-opening this week, with a variety of Covid restrictions in place.
How will they cope with the expected post-Christmas surge in Omicron cases among pupils and staff? And will they be able to remain fully open?
What will the January term look like?
It’s difficult to predict, and it will be different from region to region, and nation to nation.
Under current guidance, UK schools are expected to offer in-person teaching to all age groups this term, with effective online provision for pupils who are off isolating.
In England, the government’s message is schools will stay open come what may, with Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi saying it would do “everything in its power” to keep pupils in class.
Nonetheless, he is reported to be in constant communication with the prime minister over the issue.
The Wales. Scotland and Northern Ireland governments are also committed to doing what they can to keep education face-to-face.
England’s measures include:
- On-site testing on return to school
- Increasing vaccination take-up
- Classroom ventilation (mainly opening windows)
- Hygiene and sanitation
But these measures are the least stringent of all UK nations.
Face masks have now been reintroduced into England’s secondary school classrooms, bringing them in line with the other three nations. Previously they were only required in communal areas and corridors.
In Wales, schools are getting an extra two days to make safety preparations, some on top of planned training days. All Welsh schools are expected to be open by 10 January, however.
Pupils in Wales are advised to take three Covid tests weekly – rather than the two elsewhere – and start and finish times are being staggered.
In Scotland, there is social distancing, pupils are separated into groupings where possible, and teachers are required to wear masks when in close contact with pupils.
What are the risk factors for schools staying open?
Broadly, there are two main risk factors: that infections among teachers and other school staff could lead to class and even school closures, and secondly, the prospect of pupils bringing Covid back after family get-togethers following the Christmas break.
Before the first school lockdown in March 2020, schools struggled as increasing numbers of staff went off sick.
Because schools need a minimum number of staff to teach classes, if levels fall below that, classes have to be cancelled.
Towards the end of term, some schools in England were sending classes and year groups home for this reason. And in several parts of Wales, remote learning replaced face-to-face teaching in schools completely.
What about staff shortages?
Supply teachers who usually cover periods of sickness are likely to be in short supply due to the high levels of absence.
Many teachers are already working in tutoring organisations as part of education recovery plans.
Another problem is the rise in the cost of hiring temporary staff due to the shortage.
England’s education secretary made a plea for retired teachers to return and join teacher supply agencies to fill staffing gaps, but agencies say they are unlikely to be in place for January.
What about pupil absence?
Infected pupils returning after the Christmas break risk triggering even more infections.
The start-of-term testing regime aims to pick up cases before young people are back in class.
However, secondary pupils were meant to be testing themselves regularly for the whole of last term, and yet Covid absences rose dramatically in the weeks before Christmas.
Testing statistics from early December show only a minority of pupils were doing this.
In England, recent figures show the Covid absence rate was 2.9% in state schools on 9 December. In Scotland it was 3.7% a few days later.
What happens if there is an outbreak?
Under England’s guidelines, a school must get in touch with its local public health officials if five pupils, teachers or staff in close contact test positive for Covid in a 10-day period.
Then school management must work with local health officials to mitigate the spread of disease.
- encouraging home testing or increasing its frequency
- reinstating on-site rapid testing in secondaries, colleges and universities for a two-week period
- extra cleaning and more ventilation.
Return to school lockdown?
Short-term attendance restrictions, such as sending home a class or year group can now be used only in extreme cases, “where all other risk mitigations” have failed, and under public health advice.
At the end of the autumn term, this level of concern was reached in at least 30 local-authority areas and classes were sent home.
Schools have to have remote-learning provision in case of absence or closures, and many have really stepped up their game on this.
Many schools told the BBC at the end of December their online learning provision was ready to go in the event that they could not open fully in the new year.
Some schools sent pupils home with laptops and learning packs in case of emergency closures.
Don’t vaccinations help?
While vaccinations are not 100% guarantee against infection, they should give extra protection from disease, which is generally regarded as mild in young people.
According to an Office for National Statistics survey, 50% of adults in Great Britain said 12-to-15-year-olds in their households were vaccinated by 12 December.
But that leaves half unvaccinated.
What about ventilation?
Ventilation is one of the key measures designed to keep schools safe from Covid spread.
Some 300,000 carbon dioxide (CO2) monitors were promised for schools in England to help identify areas with poor ventilation. But teaching unions have complained this does not solve the problem.
The Welsh government has a £6m programme to increase air circulation and purity. It includes providing 30,000 CO2 sensors and 1,800 ozone disinfecting machines.
Simple steps to improve classroom ventilation