Covid: Ex-teachers asked to return to schools if Omicron wave hits staff numbers

Ex-teachers may be required to help ease pressures on schools suffering high staff absences due to the Omicron variant of Covid. Credit: PA

The education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, is issuing an NHS-style call to arms to recently retired teachers and others who could return to English schools to help ease Covid pressures.

A ministerial letter sent to the education sector, including to supply agencies, aims to boost the workforce as the pandemic takes hold in classrooms.

In it Mr Zahawi acknowledges that in areas of high absence “a particular issue can be the availability of supply staff” saying he is now looking at what steps and measures can be put in place.

“We will work with sector leaders and supply agencies over the coming days to offer advice to ex teachers who want to provide support to schools and colleges. We will help them to register with supply agencies as the best way to boost the temporary workforce available to the sector,” he writes.

“From now, you can support this effort by using your own professional and personal networks to encourage others to sign up to offer temporary help.”

But Labour’s shadow schools minister, Stephen Morgan, described the move as little more than “a sticking plaster” arguing it was only part of what was need to keep children and staff safe next term. 

“The government’s failure to get a proper workforce plan in place leaves staff, children and parents relying on good will from retired staff and volunteers, many of whom face additional risks themselves,” he said. 

“Ministers continue to fall short on delivering basic covid protections in schools,” he added- arguing that guaranteeing vaccines over the holidays and bringing in “proper ventilation” was urgent. 

Although schools are due to close this week, there are fears for January, particularly after data suggested teachers might be at a greater risk of catching Covid and then needing to isolate.

The National Education Union highlighted ONS statistics that showed education staff were 37% more likely than other workers to have Covid in the last two weeks of November – and that is likely to apply to Delta cases, rather than those caused by the new more transmissible Omicron variant.

NEU’s joint general secretary, Kevin Courtney, told me that things were terrible in schools right now “but could easily be worse next term”.

“It is very difficult in schools,” he said. “Headteachers, teachers, and support staff are striving to get to the end of term but there are so many staff absences, as well as pupil ones, which make it difficult to keep schools running.”

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He said that teachers were desperate to keep schools open but needed more support, including around boosting the vaccination rate among teenagers, bringing England in line with other parts of the UK on masks and improving ventilation.

Mr Courtney also argued that the Scottish system for siblings of those who test positive for Covid – that requires them to stay off for 3 days before taking a PCR test – would also be more sensible.

“And I’d like to see the prime minister give a Downing street address that appeals directly to parents about making sure children have lateral flow tests twice a week,” he added – arguing that would help push up numbers.

Robert Halfon – chair of Parliament’s education select committee – warned yesterday that January could see de-facto closures of schools because of the staffing crisis.

“If these reports are true it is really good news,” he told me.

“If we can have the imagination for the NHS – then we can have the same vision and passion for the education service.

"A volunteer army of retired teachers, lecturers, support staff, former Ofsted inspectors and others could make a huge difference to those schools struggling with staff and make sure we keep our schools open in January in beyond.”