UK prepares for schools reopening amid soaring COVID infections

Education minister says keeping classrooms open is a ‘priority’ as COVID-19 caseload surges, fuelled by Omicron.

Students wear protective face masks as they study in a classroom in London
Secondary school students in England will be required to wear face masks when they return to classes after the Christmas holidays [File: Toby Melville/Reuters]

The United Kingdom’s government has pledged to rush ventilation units and enough COVID-19 test kits to schools to ensure they can reopen later this week despite soaring infection rates fuelled by the Omicron variant.

Secondary school students in England will be required to wear face masks when they return to classes after the Christmas holidays and they could also face merged classes amid staffing shortages.

“The priority is to keep schools open,” British Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News on Monday. “The testing, the staffing support we’re putting in place, and of course, the ventilation is going to make a big difference to schools this year.”

Omicron has caused the UK’s virus caseload to soar during Christmas and the New Year, with 137,583 infections and 73 deaths reported for England and Wales on Sunday.

Scotland, meanwhile, recorded a further 20,217 infections on Monday, its highest daily figure of the pandemic. Figures for Northern Ireland, the UK’s other constituent nation, were set to be announced later on Monday.

Staff absences

Patrick Roach, general secretary of the British teachers’ union NASUWT, welcomed the news that more ventilation units and testing kits would be available, but warned on Sunday that the education sector has another pressing problem as schools prepare to reopen.

“The availability of teachers and support staff is also a key pressure point for schools this term as the number of COVID cases continue to increase,” Roach said.

Zahawi addressed the issue on Monday, saying the government continues to monitor staff absences amid the pandemic. He said absenteeism was around 8 percent last year.

“If that rises further then we look at things like merging classes, teaching in bigger numbers,” he said.

Zahawi also said he hoped guidance that secondary school children should wear masks in the classroom again would not be in place “for a day longer than we need it”.

PM Johnson resists tighter restrictions

Despite the surge in COVID-19 infections, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has resisted imposing new restrictions in England, instead looking to a ramped-up booster vaccination programme to control the spread of Omicron.

Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, which control their own rules, have imposed some new measures.

Johnson warned on Monday that pressure on hospitals would be “considerable” in the next couple of weeks, but added that Omicron was “plainly milder” than previous variants and that the UK was now in a stronger position than it was earlier in the pandemic.

The prime minister imposed limited measures in England, known as “Plan B”, last month, including the wearing of face coverings on public transport and in shops, but stopped short of ordering restrictions on gatherings or closing businesses.

“The way forward for the country as a whole is to continue with the path that we are on,” he told broadcasters on Monday. “Of course, we will keep all measures under review, but the mixture of things that we are doing at the moment is, I think, the right one.”

Schools reopen in Germany, France

Elsewhere across Europe, schools were also preparing for another new term overshadowed by the global pandemic or already reopening.

Children returned to class on Monday in several parts of Germany, where patchy testing and reporting during the holiday period meant that the level of infections was somewhat uncertain.

More than 12 million French children also returned to school, with new rules aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. French children from the age of six have been required to wear a face mask in classrooms since November.

If a child tests positive, all other children in the same class must test negative three times in the next four days to stay at school. The first antigen or PCR test must be performed by a health professional, followed by self-tests every two days, which are to be provided for free by pharmacies.

The move comes amid record-high infection numbers driven by the spread of Omicron.

Italian schools are not scheduled to reopen until next week, but already local leaders are mulling possible delays given a surge in cases in the country.

Meanwhile, the Dutch caretaker government was meeting Monday to decide whether children will be allowed back to classrooms next week after a holiday that was extended to three weeks as part of a nationwide lockdown that is set to continue until January 14.

The Dutch lockdown led to reductions in infection rates in recent weeks, but numbers have begun climbing again with Omicron now dominant in the Netherlands.

Source: News Agencies