Schools are forced to SHUT as unions warn of Omicron 'chaos'

Some schools are forced to SHUT a week early because HALF their staff are off ill as others send whole year groups home and cancel children’s nativity plays with just a few hours’ notice

  • Schools claim that staffing levels are down 50% in high infection areas such as London so must close down
  • Parents also being told, often at the last minute, that they can no longer attend nativities and carol concerts
  • Health secretary Sajid Javid has admitted ‘there are no guarantees’ schools will stay open in January 
  • Union leaders have demanded that new 2022 term has a staggered return because of rising Omicron cases  
  • But Downing Street is clear that no schools should be closing unless they are ordered to for public safety 
  • Parents and child safety campaigners say ministers have a ‘moral duty’ to keep schools open over winter 
  • Has your school shut early? Email [email protected] 

Schools are already closing early for the Christmas holidays and blocking parents from seeing their children in nativities and carol concerts for the second year in a row – sometimes with just hours to go – because of the rising number of Omicron cases, it was revealed today.

Headteachers say that there is ‘chaos’ in Britain’s education system with children already being taught online and now not returning to the classroom until January at the earliest.

Schools in areas with high infection rates such as London, the south-east and the East Midlands, say they are sending home entire year groups because they don’t have the teachers and supply teachers available. Unions claim that in some schools up to half of staff are off sick, with some missing from work since November.

Downing Street has said that schools should not be closing early for the Christmas holidays, unless they are ordered to on public health grounds. 

The return to home schooling for thousands of children came days after an alarming report warned that almost every child in the country has fallen behind at school because of Covid lockdowns – with pupils battling ‘endemic’ loneliness, boredom and misery during the pandemic.  

Up to half the teaching workforce is unavailable for work due to Covid-related absence in some schools, the NASUWT union has claimed.  And parents are being told to stay away from nativities and Christmas concerts, sometimes with only a few hours notice. 

Broadcaster Isabel Webster tweeted: ‘So many calls from heartbroken friends, as their child’s nativity/carol service is cancelled for 2nd year in a row… Ours is still on, but we’ve just been told only 1 family member can go – so I’m missing out. I hate you covid. We will never get these years back…’

One parent replied: ‘Have missed my daughter’s nativity for last two years now…both Reception & Year One.. and my younger daughter’s Christmas party at nursery also was cancelled last week. As you say – we will never get this time back’.

One mother told MailOnline: ‘This is child discrimination. Selfish teachers are cancelling nativities and concerts so they can not have their Christmas disrupted without consideration for the happiness and wellbeing of pupils who have already missed out on so much because of the pandemic’.

As children suffered more disruption their their education, it also emerged today:

  • NHS leaders have warned that Boris Johnson’s Covid booster rollout is setting up the health service for ‘failure’ and raised questions about the possibility of success;
  • Hospitality businesses could be shut within weeks under Government plans to halt the spread of the Covid variant as Boris Johnson faces the biggest revolt of his premiership today, with a third of Tory backbenchers preparing to vote against controversial ‘Plan B’ vaccine passports;   
  • People may need three jabs to use controversial Covid passports for entry to large venues by January, the Health Secretary warned; 

Schools are already shutting early for Christmas with unions claiming in some areas up to half of staff are now off sick. Pictured: Pupils listen during a geography lesson at Whitchurch High School earlier this year 

Nativity plays and other Christmas festivities are being widely axed and filmed instead as parents are kept away. Pictured: A Knutsford school last year

Broadcaster Isabel Webster is among the parents missing out on seeing their child’s nativity after schools cancelled or limited numbers

One parent responded that it would be the second year all their child’s Christmas events have been cancelled – a situation also suffered by millions of families

 

 

The Government should publish guidance advising schools to cancel or postpone non-essential activities and events immediately, as well as move to online staff and parental meetings, the NASUWT union says, but many schools have already axed nativities and Christmas concerts. 

NASUWT general secretary Dr Patrick Roach has written to education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi calling for masks in classrooms now and a staggered start to the new term in 2022.

The education secretary Nadhim Zahawi (pictured arriving at Broadcasting House on Sunday) has also refused to rule out school closures in the new year

He said: ‘We ask you to avoid a repeat of the confusion and chaos which last year impacted negatively on public and parental condence and hampered the hard work of teachers and school and college leaders in their preparations at the start of 2021. 

‘An immediate announcement from the government on additional measures for schools and colleges is, we believe, essential before the majority of schools and colleges close for the Christmas break.’ 

A staggered return of pupils at the start of January should be considered and additional on-site testing facilities should be provided up until the February half-term, the union says. 

With entire year groups being sent home, Mr Zahawi has hit back and said: ‘School attendance remains mandatory…The evidence is clear that the best place for children is in a classroom’.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), has said schools across the country are seeing ‘very severe low attendance’ as the Omicron variant spreads.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: ‘Listening to the speculation and the news, and certainly the emails I’ve been getting from members, you are getting some pockets of very severe low attendance, partly young people, partly staff.

‘One (school) has emailed me this morning saying 25% of staff have been off for three weeks, you can imagine if you can’t then get supply teachers that becomes very difficult to maintain the quality of education.’

Little-known minister for jabs gets sidelined

Vaccines Minister Maggie Throup was sidelined yesterday as Sajid Javid said he will now be ‘personally running’ the booster programme.

The Health Secretary said he is taking charge of the rollout and will be responsible for its success.

He insisted that Ms Throup is ‘doing a really important job’ but his decision to lead the initiative is likely to prompt questions over her future.

Her predecessor, Nadhim Zahawi, had a much more prominent role. He attended Cabinet and was frequently seen on TV. Miss Throup took over the role in September after Mr Zahawi was promoted to Education Secretary.

Asked who was in charge, Mr Javid told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Maggie Throup is the Vaccines Minister. She is doing a really important job.’

Pressed on whether she was in charge of the rollout, Mr Javid said: ‘I am personally running this programme.’

 

Downing Street said yesterday that schools should not be closing early for the Christmas holidays, unless they are ordered to on public health grounds. 

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said there were currently no plans to put any restrictions on schooling, adding that suspension of face to face lessons was only ever done if ‘it was an absolute public health emergency’.

In response to the increase in cases of the highly transmissible variant, teaching unions have called for the staggered return of pupils in January and for additional onsite testing facilities for schools.

They also said the Government should publish further guidance advising schools and colleges to cancel or postpone non-essential activities or events, as well as move to online staff and parents meetings.

Meanwhile, reports suggest some schools have been closing early amid rising concern of the Omicron variant.

In response, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: ‘Certainly we do not think anyone should be closing schools early unless they have received advice from a local director of public health that it is necessary on public health grounds.

‘We wouldn’t want to see that happening routinely just as a precaution because education is vital and we have seen sadly because of the public health crisis children have to miss face to face education and so it is very important that we maintain schooling as much as possible.’

It comes after the health secretary refused to rule out school closures when quizzed this morning as the Government continues its battle to control the spread of Omicron cases.

Sajid Javid said he did not want children to go back to learning from home after Christmas as he urged the nation to sign up for their booster jabs but said ‘there are no guarantees’ schools would be open.

Many individual schools have closed early for Christmas in defiance of Whitehall advice and it is understood several local authorities are considering similar moves to curb Omicron cases

 

Asked on LBC whether this remained a possibility, Mr Javid said: ‘Well, I don’t want to see that or any of these kinds of measures. I’m just going to focus on everything else we need to be doing, especially the booster programme.’

Website crashes in stampede for jabs  

The NHS website crashed yesterday as record numbers rushed to book a booster in the hope of saving their Christmas.

Boris Johnson’s promise to give every adult a third jab by the end of the year triggered a surge in demand that left parts of the UK’s health infrastructure unable to cope. Queues of up to five hours built up at some vaccination centres.

The Government was also forced to suspend temporarily the online availability of home lateral flow kits on the eve of rolling out a new testing regime. From today, all contacts of those who have tested positive for Covid have to take a daily rapid test for a week in a bid to prevent the virus from spreading further.

The weekend saw a record number of booster bookings on the NHS website, with 749,000 slots snapped up. A further 110,000 slots had been booked by 9am yesterday.

Problems with the site began on Sunday afternoon. The Prime Minister’s later TV address led to a further surge, with many of those trying to book met with a message telling them that they had been placed in a queue. Others were unable to get this far and were instead told the site had ‘technical difficulties’. No10 yesterday suggested ‘further capacity’ would be built into the service in coming days to deal with the increased demand.

 

He added: ‘I’d say this… if you are asking me for guarantees, I will just say – as the Health Secretary, of course, I’m not the Education Secretary – as the Health Secretary, that there are, when it comes to our fight against this pandemic, there are no guarantees.

‘But what we do know that works is, in this case, a booster shot of the vaccine.’ 

The health secretary’s comments echo those made by the education secretary yesterday who also offered no guarantee that schools would still be open in the new year.

Nadhim Zahawi said the Government was still learning about the variant and that it was trying to ensure schools were protected.  

Asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr if he could make the promise that schools won’t close, he said: ‘We are absolutely working to make sure that all schools are open, that they’re protected.

‘I will do everything in my power. We are still learning about this variant. We know that a booster works.

‘Get boosted, protect yourself, protect your community and let’s get through this and transition this from pandemic to endemic.’

An Omicron Covid-19 case was reported in a primary school for the first time last week.

All year five students, aged nine or ten, at Manor Community Primary School in Kent, were advised to stay home and get tested.

Those who are unvaccinated and come into close contact with a person who has been infected with Omicron must self-isolate for 10 days.

As of tomorrow, people who are fully vaccinated and identified as a contact of someone with Covid – whether Omicron or not – should take an NHS rapid lateral flow test every day for 7 days to help slow the spread, the Government said this weekend. 

Pupils’ parents received an email informing them of the situation and a mobile testing unit was dispatched to the school in Keary Road on Friday.

As a precaution, the UK Health Security Agency is carrying out testing on some pupils in key stage two groups. 

The news came days after another Omicron case was confirmed at nearby Northfleet Technology College. 

Health experts fear the Omicron variant could be more contagious than other strains, although it is understood the vaccine remains effective at preventing severe symptoms and hospitalisation in most cases. 

The UK’s Omicron outbreak surged by 50 per cent in a day today after more than 1,500 Britons were diagnosed with the mutant virus and the first death was confirmed.

Officials confirmed another 1,576 cases of the highly-evolved variant over the past 24 hours, bringing the total number to 4,713 — however this is believed to be a vast underestimate with the true number several times greater because not all positive tests are analysed for variants.

Fearing a rise in Omicron infections, new coronavirus restrictions have come into force around the country as part of the government’s Plan B to tackle the virus over the winter period.

Many individual schools have closed early for Christmas in defiance of Whitehall advice, with some citing their own Covid outbreaks and a lack of staff.

It is thought a number of local authorities are considering similar moves in a bid to curb Omicron cases. 

Last month, Darwen Aldridge Enterprise Studio, a secondary school which teaches pupils aged 13 to 19, said that it was shuttering its doors temporarily due to teachers being off with Covid.

And Finlay Community Primary School in Gloucestershire said it was partially closing – with pupils in reception moving to online learning – due to ‘an increase in Covid-19 cases’ and ‘low staffing levels’. 

Among the schools already closed for Christmas are Abbots Green Academy and Sybil Andrews Academy in Bury St Edmonds, Suffolk.

Pupils have switched to online learning and it is not known if they will return in January in-person yet.  

Other schools cancelled nativities and Christmas festivities amidst growing concern over the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

It comes as a public health chief called for an extension of the school holiday to act as a ‘firebreak’ against Covid.

Professor Dominic Harrison, director of public health for Blackburn with Darwen, said adding a week either side of the two-week break could reduce transmission to ‘vulnerable family members’ and protect schools in the New Year.

A firebreak, he said, would be the best way to contain Omicron after the Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases had found the strain will have a ‘very significant impact’ on schools.

His proposal was echoed by a senior leader of the National Education Union whose members are unhappy at being exposed to pupils with Covid.

But yesterday campaigners urged councils to keep schools open.

The NASUWT has said the Government should stagger the return of pupils to schools in January amid concerns about the Omicron variant and set up onsite testing facilities

Molly Kingsley, of parent group UsForThem, said: ‘Schools are quite literally essential for children. Closing them is nothing short of a moral crime.

‘Just as it would be inconceivable to close power stations, hospitals, essential retail, it must be inconceivable to close schools.’  

After the Christmas holidays last year, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told parents on Sunday January 3 to send their primary-age children back to school.

But on the evening of the next day, he announced a national lockdown for England – with all schools closed to the majority of pupils. 

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