Headteachers have warned that children returning to school in England on Tuesday face disruption to their learning as the Omicron variant of Covid threatens widespread absences of staff and pupils.
One teaching union said there was a possibility that entire year groups would need to be sent home to learn remotely.
Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, said the government’s priority was to keep schools open for face-to-face learning, but some headteachers doubt his preventative measures will be enough to stop mass infection.
Professor Neil Ferguson, infectious disease expert and Sage member, said that there will likely be a high level of infection among schoolchildren but he said symptoms are expected to be mild.
Mr Zahawi outlined new measures for schools on Sunday. They include on-site testing, the wearing of masks in classrooms, and provisions to improve ventilation.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said school leaders were “taking the additional measures announced over the weekend in their stride” but will not know whether they are effective for a few weeks.
He said staffing was the biggest concern among headteachers.
“Teachers and school staff will be testing and reporting their results at the start of this week and only then will school leaders know who they have available and be able to properly plan,” he said.
“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.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, also said staffing posed the biggest problem as schools return.
He said the new measures were recognition by the government that the spread of Omicron upcoming term would be “extremely challenging” for schools.
He said: “While schools and colleges will do their very best to minimise the impact on pupils, as they always do, there is a possibility that this will mean that some classes and year groups have to be sent home for short periods of time to learn remotely.”
After the government advised merging classes to accommodate for absences, one head said that schools had already done so in the Autumn term and that it was not a “long-term solution”.
Caroline Derbyshire, executive head at Saffron Walden County High School in Essex, and leader of Saffron Academy Trust, told PA that staff shortages can quickly add up to the point that remote learning is unavoidable.
She said: “You’ve suddenly got the inability to run a year group – that’s when you start having either year groups or whole parts of schools having to go online, so that’s when you’re going to have that mixed economy of some students being in school and some at home.”
She said this would be “a feature of this half term that we will have to manage, I don’t think anyone’s looking forward to it at all”.