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England's education minister says classes may be merged to allow schools to stay open

The Education Secretary said it was preferable for schools to remain open, even if that meant secondary school students wearing masks.

Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Updated Jan 3rd 2022, 6:32 PM

ADDITIONAL CORONAVIRUS MEASURES in schools across England will not be in place “for a day longer than we need it”, its Education Secretary has promised, as concerns were raised about possible staff shortages across the sector.

Nadhim Zahawi has told headteachers to consider merging classes or sending groups of children home if the number of staff off work due to Covid reaches critical levels.

But he said it was key to keep children in the classroom as much as possible and to keep schools open due to the mental health impacts.

England’s schools are due to return from the Christmas break tomorrow.

“The priority is to keep schools open,” he told Sky News, following the announcement that masks would be recommended in the classroom for secondary school pupils, as well as twice-weekly testing.

 Zahawi said: “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.

The most important thing is to keep them open.

“We monitor staff absenteeism, I just said to you we’re running at about 8% last year. If that rises further then we look at things like merging classes, teaching in bigger numbers.”

Zahawi admitted it was “more challenging, of course, to deliver education with masks on in the classroom”.

In Ireland, Minister for Education Norma Foley and officials from her Department are to meet with unions and management bodies tomorrow to discuss the return of schools – currently planned for this Thursday.

The Irish Government has been adamant that schools would return as normal after the Christmas break, despite record high daily Covid numbers, and concerns about infection control measures in schools that had been highlighted before the Christmas break.

No further restrictions in England – Zahawi

It comes as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered ministers to draw up contingency plans to tackle staff shortages caused by coronavirus across industries – a situation that is raising similar concerns in Ireland.

Despite the concerns over staff absences due to Covid, Zahawi said “there’s nothing in the data” to suggest further coronavirus measures will be needed later this week.

But he said: “This is an aerosol-transmitted virus and if you’re wearing a mask, if you’re asymptomatic, then you’re less likely to infect other people.”

And he 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”.

Zahawi told BBC Breakfast that Plan B measures would be reviewed on Wednesday, but added: “There’s nothing in the data that gives me any concern that we need to go beyond where we are at.

There’s some really good data from London that it looks like the infection rates are plateauing, if not yet coming down.

“But we are seeing leakage into the over-50s in terms of infections, and it’s generally the over-50s who end up with severe infection and hospitalisation.”

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Dutch schools

Meanwhile, the Dutch government also announced today that schools will reopen next week as planned after a longer than usual Christmas holiday, despite rising infections fuelled by the Omicron variant.

Primary and high schools are set to reopen on 10 January, though higher education institutions are being restricted to online courses due to an increase in the number of infections in the age group of students.

It comes after the Netherlands imposed some of the toughest restrictions in Europe to curb the rapidly spreading Omicron variant on 19 December.

The country closed schools for three weeks and shit all non-essential shops, cultural and entertainment venues until 14 January.

The Dutch National Institute of Public Health said today that positive cases of Covid-19 are rising, mainly because the more infectious Omicron strain is now dominant.

Around 14,623 people tested positive on Monday, compared to 11,440 a week before, with the average rate of infection rising for a sixth day in a row, the RIVM said.

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