Ministers have told headteachers in England to start preparing for staff shortages by using support staff to fill in gaps, combining classes or using hybrid learning, with some classes taught remotely and some face-to-face.
In an email sent to schools on Sunday, the Department for Education (DfE) advised them to deal with staff shortages by combining classes into larger groups.
The email said: “You may wish to use existing teaching, temporary and support staff more flexibly where required to ensure your setting remains open, while ensuring that you continue to have appropriate support in place for pupils with [special education needs and disabilities].
“As pupils do not need to be kept in consistent groups, you may wish to consider combining classes.”
The new advice came as the government announced that 137,583 new Covid cases had been recorded in England and Wales. That is the lowest daily figure since 27 December, when figures may also have been depressed by the festivities, but the total number of new cases over the past seven days is still up 43.1% on the previous week.
Ministers have not yet ruled out introducing further Covid restrictions for England, but the health minister Edward Argar said on Sunday that he was seeing “nothing at the moment in the data” to suggest they would be needed.
Nadhim Zahawi told school leaders in an open letter posted on Sunday that staff absences would be a “possible challenge” in keeping students in classrooms.
The education secretary said: “If operational challenges caused by workforce shortages in your setting make delivery of face-to-face teaching impossible, I would encourage you to consider ways to implement a flexible approach to learning.
“Flexible delivery involves utilising all your available teaching and non-teaching workforce to maximise on-site education for as many pupils as possible while you flexibly deliver provision either on-site or remotely to some pupils,” Zahawi said.
In a Twitter thread addressed to a wider audience, Zahawi said face-to-face teaching would “continue to be the expected norm” in the new term, which will start for many pupils on Tuesday. He particularly praised former teachers who have agreed to fill vacancies this term, saying: “It’s this Blitz spirit that will be essential in turning the tide on Covid.”
Zahawi sought to reassure parents after Labour and unions said last-minute moves to tackle the spread of the Omicron Covid variant in schools, colleges and universities in England would not be enough to avoid disruption or stop large-scale absences among staff and students.
The DfE announced that masks should be worn indoors in education settings in England, including in classrooms, libraries and corridors, from the start of the new term until the end of January.
It also said it had ordered 7,000 air purification units for nurseries, schools and colleges, “for areas where quick fixes to improve ventilation are not possible, such as being able to open a window”. But the units will not be delivered until next month.
For a classroom to qualify for a government air purifier, the DfE says it must show a “sustained” CO2 reading of 1,500 particles per million or higher for a week when occupied, as well as requiring building work to improve its ventilation.
The shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, said 7,000 units were “nowhere near enough” because they would only cover around one in four schools in England. “I’m afraid it looks a little bit like a rushed last-minute announcement to give the appearance of doing something on a big issue where they should have taken action a lot sooner,” he said.
Data from the Office for National Statistics shows children have been among the most likely to be infected, with one in 15 children aged two to Year 6, and one in 20 for Years 7-11, testing positive for Covid for the week ending 23 December in England.
The joint general secretary of the National Education Union, Mary Bousted, said the order of 7,000 purifiers would be “completely inadequate” for providing clean air. “The fact that the government have provided the extra purifiers shows that it recognises the problem but with over 300,000 classrooms in England they have failed to provide an effective solution,” Bousted said.
Ofsted, the schools inspectorate for England, will not inspect secondary schools or colleges in the first week of term. Current school leaders who also act as Ofsted inspectors will not be asked to carry out inspections, while schools affected by Covid staff absences should request deferrals of inspection visits.
The DfE said the mask advice for students in year 7 and above would remain until 26 January, when it would be reviewed alongside other mitigation measures. The advice also applies to further and higher education providers such as colleges and universities.
The Conservative chair of the Commons education committee, Robert Halfon, told Times Radio he was worried that mask-wearing would have a negative effect on pupils.
“The children’s minister came to my committee and said there was very limited evidence as to the efficacy of masks in educational settings,” he said.
“Jonathan Van-Tam, hugely respected, the deputy chief medical officer, said that they could be quite inhibitory to the natural expressions of learning in children, the national Children’s Deaf Society has tweeted out their big reservations about mask policy, and what I worry about is the effect that masks have on children’s wellbeing, mental health and anxiety.”
Bousted, however, disagreed. She said secondary school pupils in Scotland and Wales had been wearing masks in class without that causing problems.
“Even in secondary only just under half the pupils have been vaccinated. And we know that mask-wearing does have an effect of suppressing transmission,” she said.
In a sign of lessons heeded from the tragic case of the murdered six-year-old Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, the DfE has updated its list of “vulnerable” children to be given priority for face-to-face teaching in the event of school or nursery closures.
The list now includes children who have been known to social care services because of “domestic abuse, parental offending, adult mental health issues, and drug and alcohol addiction”.