Ministers are said to be looking at back-up plans for the start of term as Omicron drives record high case rates
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Schoolchildren could be forced to return to online learning as mass Covid-related absences hit the teaching workforce.
According to insiders, ministers fear too many teachers will be off sick for all schools to begin the new term as normal and back up plans for homeschooling may be triggered.
Any move back to virtual lessons is seen as a last-resort measure, with other plans drawn up by civil servants including multiple classes being taught in larger halls.
It comes as the highly-transmissible Omicron variant drives record high infection rates, with England logging an unprecedented 162,572 new cases on January 1.
One Whitehall source told the Mirror: “We are just being practical.
“It is very likely that some schools could have teachers off isolating so we are trying to figure out the best way to keep children in schools.
“If all of those aren’t possible, then some year groups or classes may have to go online but we are hoping this will be for literally only days.”
The Cabinet Office has claimed that, so far, disruption caused by Omicron has been controlled in “most parts of the public sector”.
But it said public sector leaders have been asked to test plans against “worst case scenarios” of 10%, 20% and 25% workforce absence rates.
In December, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi called on ex-teachers to help with Covid-related staff shortages in the new year.
Meanwhile, senior Conservative backbencher Rob Halfon voiced concern that new rules on face masks in schools risked damaging youngsters’ mental health.
The Government announced on Saturday that masks will return for secondary school students in England’s classrooms on a temporary basis this term.
The chairman of the Commons’ education select committee said: “My big worry is that, whilst you’ve got to balance the risks of Covid, which are minimal, thank goodness, to kids – and… we’ve got teachers and support staff vaccinated, many will have had the booster vaccination as well – so you’ve got to balance that on one side of the scale against the risks to children’s mental health, wellbeing.”
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It came as Health minister Ed Argar insisted today that there is “nothing new” in the latest Covid data to prompt new restrictions.
“We need cool, calm heads,” said Mr Argar. “We need to look at the data and we need to do everything possible to avoid any restrictions.
“Restrictions or curbs must be the absolute last resort. I’m seeing nothing at the moment in the data I have in front of me, in the immediate situation, that suggests a need for further restrictions. But that data changes day by day.
“I, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State, are looking at that data every single day. And we keep a close eye on it.”
The Government insisted the extra precaution would help keep pupils learning.
Robert Halfon, chair of the Commons education select committee, said the risks from Covid-19 need to be balanced against the risks to children’s wellbeing.
He made the comments as the Government announced masks will return for secondary school students in England’s classrooms on a temporary basis this term.
Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said he would rather have masks worn in classrooms than children out of school.
“I think in terms of schools, if the choice is between having masks at schools or children missing schools in huge numbers, of course we want to keep pupils learning. That’s got to be the priority,” he told Sky News.