Schools are reopening after the Christmas break – with new guidance on masks in classrooms and regular testing. Here’s what you need to know
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Pupils will have to obey new Covid rules in England as schools brace for a surge in infections as they reopen after Christmas.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi imposed tougher rules for the new term to minimise disruption to schooling, including masks in classrooms and regular testing.
The Government has insisted that school closures would only happen as a last resort after the damage done to children’s education and life chances from repeated lockdowns.
But teaching unions have warned that rising infections and staff shortages could mean some classes are sent home to learn remotely.
Infectious diseases expert Professor Neil Ferguson warned that children going back to school was likely to drive up Covid cases but they were likely to be mild.
He said: “The Delta infections in the last few months have been really driven by school-age children and by the older age groups in the population.
“Omicron slipped in the middle in 18 to 45-year-olds really but it didn’t have much time to get into school children before schools shut and we expect to now see quite high infection levels, of mild infection I should emphasise, in school-age children.”
Ministers will examine the data today as they brace to see if Boris Johnson’s decision to allow Christmas to go ahead will see hospitals become overwhelmed.
Here are the new Covid rules for schools in England as children go back.
Regular lateral flow tests for secondary pupils
Secondary school pupils are being asked to do a lateral flow test on site on their first day back to school.
If they test positive, they will be sent home to do a confirmatory PCR test. If it is negative then they can carry on with their school day.
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Staff and college students should take a lateral flow test at home before coming into school.
Secondary, college and university students and staff should then continue to test themselves at home twice a week – or more frequently if asked to do so, such as in the event of an outbreak.
Primary pupils are not required to do regular lateral flow tests.
Masks in class for older pupils
Secondary school pupils are now being told to wear masks in the classroom, as well as in communal areas.
Students in year 7 or above will be asked to don face coverings in light of surging cases of the Omicron variant.
It doesn’t apply to situations where masks would impact on pupil’s ability to take part in the lesson, such as PE classes, or outdoors.
The advice will be in place until January 26, when Plan B regulations are due to expire.
Teachers are also advised to wear masks in communal areas but not while they are teaching.
Primary pupils don’t need to wear masks – but teachers and staff are told to put on face coverings when walking around school buildings.
Classes could be merged
The Education Secretary suggested sending groups of children home or merging classes if necessary to keep schools open.
In an open letter to schools, Mr Zahawi 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.
“[This] 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. This should only be on a short-term measure.”
The guidance to heads said: “As pupils do not need to be kept in consistent groups, you may wish to consider combining classes. Where there is a need for remote education, live streaming is the preferred method for providing this wherever possible.”
You don’t have to isolate if your child has Covid
The rules say that fully vaccinated Brits do not need to self isolate if they are a close contact of someone with Covid.
If your child tests positive, you are advised to do a daily lateral flow test for seven days but you do not have to stay at home.
If you then test positive, you must self isolate yourself and do a confirmatory PCR test.
What to do if your child is unwell
The advice is the same as for the wider population – get tested regularly and be sensible.
If your child exhibits Covid symptoms such as a high temperature, a cough or a loss of taste and smell then they should get a PCR test.
You should not send your child to school or nursery if you think they have Covid-19.