Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“We need a plan B for schools and colleges now.

“Covid-related absences are on the rise in both primary and secondary settings, and among teachers and school staff - leading to significant disruption for education. More than 200,000 pupils were absent for covid-related reasons on 25 November and since then infection rates among school-age children have risen further; in particular, rates are rising very rapidly in London, the South East, and the East of England.  As Omicron spreads this disruption is likely to increase rapidly.

“Children have suffered huge disruption to their education since March 2020 and our children need the Government to act to keep absences of staff and pupils as low as possible. But the Government has so far failed to follow even measures on masks and isolation that are in place in Scotland.

“So, the NEU is calling for the Government to introduce a plan B for schools and colleges now. They must urgently increase the level of mitigations to slow the spread of Covid-19 in our schools:

- 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.

- 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.

“Once more is 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.”