Failure to tackle Omicron ‘chaos’ may keep children away from school longer, union says

Pupils wearing masks
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Delaying action until vaccination can take hold may keep children away from the classroom “longer” in the long term, a school leaders’ union has warned.


Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, has said it is already “chaos” in some schools following the emergence of the Omicron variant of coronavirus.

His warning came after health secretary Sajid Javid said he could not guarantee schools would not close again due to the pandemic. Asked on LBC whether this remained a possibility, Javid said:

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.

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 – that there are, when it comes to our fight against this pandemic, there are no guarantees.

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

It comes after education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said on 12 December that he could not guarantee that in January all schools will be open everywhere.

“Further transmission”

Whiteman said he was “pleased to see” both ministers showing a “bit of realism” over possible school closures. He added:

It is already chaos in some schools as the Omicron wave hits. Delaying action until vaccination can take hold may actually keep children away from school longer in the long term. We would urge the Government to take every safety measure possible while maintaining face-to-face education, in order to avoid longer term school closures.

Infection rates in schools have been growing unabated for a long time. Simply relying on the fact that children tend to suffer less from the virus is not good enough. We have to account for further transmission too.

The Government must act now to deliver ventilation solutions, sensible and effective isolation protocols, and lift the unnecessary pressure of inspection and other bureaucratic burdens. That way we can concentrate on keeping children where they should be.

Whiteman added:

School leaders and their teams have been working tirelessly to keep children in school. They are the very last to want to see schools close.

Speaking on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show on 12 December, Zahawi said the government does not have plans “at the moment” to vaccinate primary school-aged children.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said:

It’s impossible to rule out school closures and a return to remote education because nobody has a crystal ball which allows them to foresee how the Omicron variant will impact education and wider society.

All we can say with any certainty is that everybody involved in education is doing everything possible to keep things going under extremely difficult circumstances.

What we may see is schools periodically having to close or send home year groups, for short periods of time, because of unsustainable levels of staff and pupil absence, or on public health advice.

This has already been happening during the course of this term and there could be more of this if the Omicron variant means that there is more disruption.

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