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.
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”.