Commenting on the rise of the Omicron variant in the UK, and the threat this could pose to the disruption of education in England, Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said:  

"To reduce disruption to education the Government must heed the call for further mitigations to be put in place in schools and colleges. With Covid infection rates rising in schools it is absolute folly that no mention of this has been made in Boris Johnson's statements, nor as far as we are aware are any measures being considered for the new year. We cannot be caught out again. To act now and make our schools and colleges as Covid-secure as possible is something which must be done as a matter of urgency.  

"Last week, the NEU outlined what we believe needs to be in place for a fit for purpose Plan B. This includes:  

  • Face coverings to be worn, in line with Government requirements, by pupils and staff in secondary communal areas and by primary staff in communal areas. This should be extended to secondary classrooms for staff and students. No member of staff in any setting should be prevented from wearing a face covering in any part of the premises. 
  • Children who have a sibling or other household member with Covid-19 should not attend school/college until they have had a negative PCR test - as in Scotland - in addition to the Government guidance of 10-day isolation on close contacts of confirmed or suspected Omicron cases.
  • The Government should change its ventilation guidance to state that classrooms must keep CO2 below 800 ppm, as advocated by the HSE and should invest urgently in air filtration devices. Sage first highlighted the importance of ventilation in schools in May 2020; Government has failed to act on their advice.
  • Measures such as one-way routes and staggered break times should be urgently reintroduced to minimise mixing between classes and year groups wherever possible. 
  • Government to issue guidance to all schools and colleges on safe organisation of gatherings and meetings, including options for social distancing or virtual events, based on factors including local case rates, outbreaks in the school/college itself, quality of ventilation and space available. 
  • In addition, Government should encourage schools and colleges to allow staff to book vaccines and boosters during working hours without loss of pay and launch a campaign to encourage twice weekly testing for all staff and pupils. Government should also mandate provision of higher-grade medical masks (FFP2, FFP3) provided where requested by at-risk staff and pupils previously defined as clinically vulnerable, or clinically extremely vulnerable, or involved in close contact and personal care.

“As more becomes known about the Omicron variant these measures may need to be enhanced further or may no longer be necessary, following the vaccination effort, but for now, we are calling on the Government to adopt a cautious approach - a Plan B to stop the disruption of education.”