Pupils return to school with new Covid rules as Omicron cases threaten public sector staff shortages

ITV News speaks to teachers and pupils at a school where the headteacher is determined to keep lessons in classrooms as long as it is safe, Correspondent Dan Rivers reports

Staff shortages due to Covid could worsen as the new terms goes on and could further disrupt children's education, school leaders have warned.

It comes as many pupils returned to the classroom on Tuesday, with new advice to wear masks in classrooms in England alongside testing twice a week, as Omicron cases soar.

Education union leaders have warned of a “stressful time” ahead as existing teacher absences on the first day of term could become even more “challenging” in the weeks ahead.

Some schools are reporting that around one in five staff members could be missing at the start of term.

The chair of Ofqual has suggested that schools may need to suspend “specialist” subjects – like music – to cope with staff absences this term.

It's not just schools which are being hit by staff shortages, other public services are also resorting to emergency plans to mitigate absences caused by the new variant.

Several hospital trusts have declared critical incidents in recent days – where priority services may be under threat.

These include United Lincolnshire Hospitals NHS Trust, where “extreme and unprecedented” staff shortages were expected to result in “compromised care”, and Morecambe Bay NHS Trust.

Boris Johnson said on Monday that he would “make sure that we look after our NHS any way that we can”.

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Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said schools should be prepared to merge classes into large groups if staff levels dipped too low.

He also called on former and retired teachers to return to the classroom as part of the government’s efforts to tackle staff shortages.

But health leaders warned the health service was “in a state of crisis”, and a headteacher predicted remote learning could return if school staff were struck down with the virus.

Helen Jones, headteacher of the Winton Community Academy in Andover, Hampshire, told ITV News of the challenges that staff absences could present in the future if infection rates remain high.

There are currently two teachers at the secondary school off with coronavirus, with one of them delivering a lesson from home while pupils are supervised in the classroom.

She went on to say that finding supply teachers to cover staff at short notice and being able to sustain face-to-face teaching over the coming months are the biggest challenges for her school.

The headteacher also said she wants year 11 to be able to sit their summer GCSE exams.

Helen Jones explains the biggest problems facing her school amid the Omicron surge

She said, in an event of a return to home learning, all pupils are equipped with devices to be taught from, but she is not sure yet if this will be necessary, with the school aiming to stay open for as long as possible.

The headteacher welcomes the temporary reintroduction of face-masks in classrooms in England's secondary schools as she supports any measures that enable in person teaching.

While staff absences at Winton Community Academy were not too high, Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis Charitable Trust, which has 52 schools across England, said that at two primary schools in the trust around 20% of staff were absent.

One school had six staff out of 32 off for an inset day and another had seven missing out of about 35.

Mr Chalke said that should pupils need to learn from home again, the trust has purchased iPads for all students.

In response to the government's calls for retired teachers to return, Mr Chalke said even if as many as 30,000 were recruited, it may only be a “drop in the bucket”.

He added that schools had already been “hammered” over the last six terms with supply teacher costs.

He said: “Schools are desperate for support and it’s great that there’s this call for retired teachers, but a commitment to fund supply teachers would be hugely beneficial.”

In a case study posted on a Department for Education (DfE) portal for headteachers on Sunday, Ian Bauckham, chair of exams regulator Ofqual, said that absence levels could reach a point “where resources can be stretched too thinly and alternatives, however undesirable, become necessary.”

He wrote: “In cases where a specialist teacher rotates between classes to teach subjects that sometimes include, for example, PSHE, RSHE or music, it may be possible temporarily to suspend the teaching of that subject and use that teacher to teach classes whose normal teacher is absent and unable to teach remotely.”

Many children got their second Covid vaccine doses over the Christmas holidays. Credit: PA

Evelyn Forde, head of Copthall School in Mill Hill, north London, and vice president of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said 13 members of staff were absent on an inset day on Tuesday.

Senior members of staff, including Ms Forde herself, will cover lessons at the secondary school and she will try to get supply teachers in, but if the shortages are too great, classes will have to be merged, she said.

Ms Forde said: “We’ve got an assembly hall which is large and we’ve got a sports hall which is really large, but if you take out either of those spaces you’re actually taking out teaching space because we teach in those spaces. So we’re going to have to be very creative in terms of what that looks like.”

She added she was “deeply concerned” that staff shortages and pupil absences could get worse.

Four children had already tested positive for Covid-19 on site on Tuesday, and a number of parents had also sent evidence to the school that their children had caught the virus over the holidays.

Ms Forde said: “If you couple that with the staffing – which is looking pretty horrendous actually – I think the term ahead is going to be really, really challenging for school leaders and the young people.

“We’re ever mindful of trying to socially distance as much as we can, but it’s just not really feasible. We’ll have the windows open and so forth, but everything will present its challenges.”

She said it was a “possibility” that pupils may have to wear coats in class due to windows being open.

Tom Quinn, chief executive of the Frank Field Education Trust, which runs two secondary schools and one primary school, said they will also make sure windows are open to increase air circulation and reduce transmission, which he acknowledged could mean more students layering up.

He told the Press Association: “We’ve done this in the past. It’s not ideal. It’s not perfect. But we are still in a pandemic situation and we have to react accordingly.”

Mr Quinn said it is likely there will be further teacher shortages and pupil absences as the term progresses, but he added: “We really want to do everything we can possibly do to make sure children are educated in the classroom with proper teachers.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “The biggest concern for school leaders is staffing. It only takes a small increase in staff absence to begin to cause real problems.

“School leaders are understandably anxious about how the term might progress if staffing levels fall as some have predicted, and are concerned about maintaining quality of education in the face of shortages.

“School leaders will be doing everything possible to ensure a smooth return and a successful term for their students, but depending on how infection rates progress, it could be another stressful time.”

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, told the PA: “That concern, that anxiety about insufficient teacher numbers, is raising its head amongst our members.

“Frankly if schools don’t have safe staffing levels then it may also be the case that pupils regrettably may have to be sent home.

“The indicators we had just prior to the Christmas break was that in some schools as many as a third of teaching staff were absent. We don’t think that picture is going to have gotten any better for the start of this term.

“We’re already hearing of staff absences now on the first day back which are higher than would normally be expected at this time of the year.

“As we often do see during these winter months, we will see the normal seasonal issues that are impacting on our workforce supply.

“But you add on to that the impact of Omicron in relation to staff who are not able to be in school, or who may have contracted Covid-19, that could make a very challenging situation much worse.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “We know children and young people want to be in the classroom and it is the very best place for their education and wellbeing, which is why face-to-face teaching continues to be an absolute priority.

“The safety measures we have put in place strike a balance between managing transmission risk with regular testing and enhanced ventilation and hygiene, and reducing disruption to in-person learning.”

Also on Tuesday, The Daily Telegraph reported that up to 10 million “critical” workers would be able to access Covid tests through their employers, after days of complaints that they could not be ordered online and stocks in pharmacies were patchy.

The newspaper said health, education, transport and utilities workers would be included in the scheme, which could be announced as early as this week following a meeting of Cabinet’s Covid Operations Committee on Wednesday.

But in the meantime Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents health trusts, said “a number of trusts across the country have declared internal critical incidents over the last few days”.

People queue outside a vaccination clinic at Glasgow Central Mosque Credit: Jane Barlow/PA

And chief executive of University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay, Aaron Cummins, confirmed in a statement that the trust had declared an “internal critical incident”.

In an internal message from Mr Cummins shared on Twitter, he told staff that “sadly, despite everyone’s best efforts, many of our patients are still receiving a level of care and experience that falls below the level of standards we would like”.

Meanwhile, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It’s hard to imagine that if the NHS is being affected, that retail is being affected, if sporting fixtures are being affected, it’s hard to see why you wouldn’t in schools and colleges have the same issues around staff shortages.”

Bin collections and train services have also been hit.

Latest Covid statistics

The UK has recorded a record number of new Covid-19 cases, while the number of patients in hospital in England with coronavirus reached the highest level since February.

A total of 15,044 people were in hospital with Covid-19 as of 8am on January 4, according to NHS England.

This is the highest number since February 18 and is an increase of 58% from a week earlier.

Meanwhile, the UK recorded a further 218,724 new coronavirus infections in a day, as of 9am on Tuesday.

It is the first time the UK reported more than 200,000 cases in a day, but the figures contain some delayed reporting from over the holiday period.

And at least 48 more people have died within 28 days of testing positive. The figures only include deaths in England, Northern Ireland and Wales as Scotland has not provided up-to-date information on Covid deaths.