Omicron leads many UK schools to close early for Christmas

Several schools and colleges will close early for Christmas to minimise the spread of the Omicron variant, with others preparing for further disruption and possible closures next year as the it sweeps across the UK.

Primary and secondary schools in England and Wales have decided to end the term early because of staff shortages caused by illness and Covid-related isolation.

The Welsh government has announced that its schools will delay the start of the new term by two days “to ensure they have robust plans in place to move to remote learning if required”, while school leaders in England are preparing for an extended switch to online learning in January, with many ensuring that pupils take laptops and textbooks home for the holidays.

Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary for England, told headteachers he was planning to encourage former teachers to help fill the gaps left by staff shortages.

In a letter to heads, Zahawi said: “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.”

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said Zahawi’s move was “very unlikely to be enough to solve a problem at such a scale as this”.

The BBC reported that schools in at least 30 local authorities in England had moved teaching online during the last week of term. This move came despite a clear message from No 10 that schools should remain open.

On Monday, in response to questions about schools closing early a spokesperson for No 10, said: “Certainly we do not think anyone should be closing schools early, unless they have received advice from the local director of public health that it’s necessary on public health grounds.”

Stephen Morgan, the shadow schools minister, said: “Children have been in and out of school facing ongoing disruption to education and wellbeing again this term. This cannot continue. The government has continuously failed to plan ahead, but must act now and use the Christmas holidays to prevent the chaos seen last January.”

Local authorities in England, Wales and Scotland are making preparations in case of school closures next month, or delaying reopening to allow for testing.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Miles, Wales’s minister for education, said all schools should plan for measures based on the Welsh government’s “very high risk level” of infection control, and was giving authority for schools to operate staggered start and finish times.

“I am providing all schools with two planning days at the start of the spring term. This will allow time for schools to assess staffing capacity and put the necessary measures in place to support the return of all learners,” Miles said.