Will schools close again? Covid guidance for schools as on-site Covid testing to start in England in January

The UK government has warned parents not to “deprive their children of education” by taking them out of school before the end of term

Rising case numbers of the Omicron Covid variant in the UK has sparked concerns that schools could face disruption this winter.

Face masks rules have already been tightened in England, while new Plan B measures has seen Covid passes introduced to enter nightclubs and large events as part of effort to minimise the spread.

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The government is calling on all eligible adults to get their booster vaccine as part of a “national mission” to increase protection against the rapidly spreading variant, while children aged 12 to 15 have been able to book their second dose in England from 20 December.

But what rules have been announced for schools? Here’s everything you need to know.

Could schools be closed again?

In the run-up to Christmas, some schools and colleges switched to remote lessons in light of soaring coronavirus cases across the UK.

However, parents were urged not to take their children out of school before the end of term, with the government saying it is important that schools and parents “don’t take precautionary steps to deprive their children of education”.

The plea came amid reports that parents were choosing to keep their children out of class before Christmas due to concerns over Omicron.

The BBC has reported that schools have been preparing to switch to online learning next term if needed, despite the government insisting closures will not be needed.

However, the government has promised that schools would be the last sector to close, with the Department for Education (DfE) insisting that sending large groups of pupils home should only be done as a “last resort”.

This means that even if more stringent lockdown measures are announced in January, it is very unlikely that schools would be forced to close again.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “The news of a new variant – the so-called Omicron variant – will have understandably caused concern for people across our country, including our teachers, wider education and childcare staff, parents, pupils and students.

“We are already taking targeted and proportionate action as a precaution while we find out more information about the new variant.

“As we do so, we will continue to prioritise children’s and young people’s education and wellbeing, making sure education and childcare settings are as safe as possible and children continue to benefit from classroom teaching.

“We are working with education and childcare settings to enhance safety measures where needed, including introducing isolation for 10 days for close contacts of suspected Omicron cases.”

While the prospect of school closures have been dismissed, new guidance on face masks has been put in place in schools to help minimise the risk of infections.

The DfE is advising that face coverings should now be worn in all communal areas of schools and colleges in England.

An email update from the DfE to education and childcare providers said: “Face coverings should be worn in communal areas in all settings by staff, visitors and pupils or students in Year 7 and above, unless they are exempt.

“Pupils or students (in Year 7 or above) should continue to wear face coverings on public and dedicated school transport, unless they are exempt.”

What are the rules on testing?

Secondary schools in England have been told to test pupils on-site in January following the Christmas break.

In an email to schools issed at the end of last month, the DfE said testing secondary school pupils once they return “will help reduce transmission after a period of social mixing” over the holidays.

The DfE told secondary schools to order sufficient testing kits to ensure all pupils can take a rapid lateral flow test on-site when they return.

Secondary schools have also been asked to order home testing kits so pupils can continue to test.

An email sent to school leaders said: “We would like all secondary schools to prepare to test their pupils once on-site on return in January.

“We understand that this is a significant additional ask but testing continues to play a vital role in keeping Covid-19 out of schools.

“Testing all pupils in school boosts testing participation and will help reduce transmission after a period of social mixing over the school holidays.

“Tests, PPE and funding to support your workforce will be provided as before. After this test on return, pupils should continue to test in line with government guidelines.”

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