Schoolchildren returned to classes Monday in parts of Europe, while the British government pledged to rush ventilation units and enough COVID-19 test kits to schools to ensure they, too, can reopen later this week despite soaring infection rates in the UK.
Secondary school students in England also will be required to wear face masks when they return to classes after the Christmas holidays and they could also face merged classes amid staffing shortages.
“The priority is to keep schools open,” British Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News. “The testing, the staffing support we’re putting in place, and of course the ventilation is going to make a big difference to schools this year.”
The highly transmissible omicron variant has caused Britain’s daily new caseload to soar over Christmas and the New Year, with 137,583 infections and 73 deaths reported for England and Wales only on Sunday, with numbers for Scotland and Northern Ireland to be announced after the holiday weekend.
Patrick Roach, general secretary of the British teachers’ union NASUWT, welcomed news that more ventilation units and testing kits would be available, but warned Sunday that the education industry has another pressing problem as schools prepare to reopen.
“The availability of teachers and support staff is also a key pressure point for schools this term as the number of COVID cases continue to increase,” Roach said.
Zahawi addressed the issue Monday, saying the government continues to monitor staff absences amid the pandemic. He told Sky that absenteeism was around 8% last year. “If that rises further then we look at things like merging classes, teaching in bigger numbers,” he said.
Zahawi also told Sky that he hoped guidance that secondary school children should wear masks in the classroom again would not be in place “for a day longer than we need it.”
Children returned to schools on Monday in several parts of Germany, where patchy testing and reporting over the holiday period means that the level of infections was somewhat uncertain.
In Berlin, one of the states where schools reopened, the local education minister said daily testing for children will be carried out this week. But Astrid-Sabine Busse told RBB Inforadio that current plans call for that to be reduced to three tests per week after that.
Testing “is already an absolute routine at school, before classes, and we want to keep it,” she said.
In the eastern state of Thuringia, which had Germany’s highest infection rate in recent weeks, children will start off the new term learning from home for at least two days. From Wednesday onward, schools will decide themselves whether to stick to online learning, bring children back to the classroom or work with a mixture of the two.
The federal education minister, Bettina Stark-Watzinger, tweeted that face-to-face teaching “is a question of equal opportunities. We must do everything to keep schools open.”
In France, children returned to classes Monday after a two-week holiday that saw infections soar throughout the country.
The Dutch caretaker government was meeting Monday to decide whether children will be allowed back to classrooms next week after a holiday that was extended to three weeks as part of a nationwide lockdown that is set to continue until Jan. 14.
The Dutch lockdown led to reductions in infection rates in recent weeks, but numbers have begun climbing again with the omicron variant now dominant in the Netherlands.
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