Government insists closing schools in England ‘last possible option’ in fight against Omicron Covid variant

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi opposes the return of classroom “bubbles” and insists schools will be kept open

Schools will not be closing early for Christmas this year as Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi confirms this would only be a “last possible option”.

Mr Zahawi said he does not support the return of “bubbles” in schools where whole classes or year groups could be sent home after a positive Covid-19 test as it “significantly” reduces attendance.

His comments follow the Government’s latest guidance on wearing face masks in the communal areas of England’s secondary schools amid the rising number of Omicron cases in the UK.

Teaching unions are now urging for tougher measures to be implemented to prevent the spread of the new variant.

What did the Education Secretary say?

Mr Zahawi insisted the “best place for children to be is in a classroom learning.”

He told ITV’s This Morning programme that schools should “do all the things necessary, like face masks in communal areas… to protect the education in the classroom” and to “keep schools open.”

He added: “Face masks are not a panacea… these are all interventions that just help you slow the virus… from accelerating too quickly.”

Have any schools been affected by Omicron?

Testing of pupils in two schools in Essex and Nottinghamshire has begun after cases of Omicron were detected in the local area.

One class at the Larchwood Primary School in Essex has switched to remote learning and all pupils are being tested for the new variant as a case was found in Brentwood.

The school in Nottingham is testing pupils as a “precautionary measure” after Omicron was detected locally, Nottinghamshire City Council said.

What else has been said?

The Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, said: “There are no plans that I am aware of that would require us to close schools early, I think that would be very detrimental to the education of children.”

The National Education Union (NEU) has suggested wearing face masks in secondary school classrooms, and “bubbles” to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “The last thing we want is to see more disruption to education” but the “failure to require face coverings in both areas in secondary schools is a mis-step in the latest guidance.

“Schools may wish to consider bubbles to help stop the spread, and in relation to local case rates and any outbreaks within the school.

“Masks in communal areas are there to stop the spread between classes, and bubbles with different playtimes and lunch sittings would help with the same aim.”

According to Justine Roberts, founder and chief executive of Mumsnet, “there’s widespread concern” on the site from both parents and teachers “about how schools will fare in light of this new variant.”

Ms Roberts said: “Many fear a repeat of the U-turns and closures seen over the past year, and there’s sadness and frustration as nativity plays and Christmas activities are being cancelled.

“The overwhelming call from our users is for urgent support and guidance from the Government to mitigate the spread and keep schools open – whether that’s mask mandates, investment in ventilation and CO2 monitors, or the return of classroom ‘bubbles’.”

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