The Omicron threat: Stop this foot-dragging, penny-pinching muddle

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
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The government response to the pandemic in schools continues to be a foot-dragging, penny-pinching muddle. As the Omicron variant threatens to take hold, Geoff Barton implores ministers to do better

The pandemic has given rise to a host of new words and phrases which have rapidly become part of everyday speech: “Social distancing”, “lateral flow tests”, and “nasal swabs”, to name but a few.

The latest, unfortunately, is Omicron – the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet, and now the name of a new Covid variant first reported in South Africa and labelled as a “variant of concern”.

In a press conference on Saturday (November 27), the prime minister announced that face masks will be compulsory in shops and on public transport in England.

This was swiftly followed by an email to schools and colleges on Sunday (November 28) advising that face masks should be worn in communal areas for staff, visitors and pupils in year 7 and above (DfE, 2021).

Furthermore, any suspected or confirmed close contacts of the Omicron variant will be asked to isolate for 10 days regardless of vaccination status or age.

So, the nightmare continues, not that it ever really went away, as schools and colleges across the country will attest having spent the autumn term often struggling with high levels of pupil and staff absence caused by Covid infections.

It is unlikely that Omicron will be the last variant of concern. Other letters of the Greek alphabet will no doubt have to be utilised in the future. All of this sounds very gloomy, but it is probably no more than realistic, and shows that the safety measures we might once have thought temporary will need to be switched on as circumstances demand for a long time to come. This is the new normal.

It is therefore even more imperative that the government gets to grips with some of the long-standing shortcomings in the support provided to schools and colleges.

One of these raised its head again on Friday afternoon (November 26) via an email from the Department for Education (DfE) asking all secondary schools to prepare to provide Covid testing for their pupils on-site on return in January.

Incredibly, the email told them they would need to order sufficient test kits by Tuesday (November 30), leaving them with two working days to make these arrangements.

It means that schools are therefore once again left with the job of organising and staffing Covid testing stations – something which should be a public health responsibility rather than the remit of educators.

That is not an argument against on-site testing. On the contrary. Providing on-site testing at the beginning of a term, or even half-term, seems like a logical and sensible approach to detecting asymptomatic cases following the mixing which takes place in holiday periods.

It is one of those measures which it may well be necessary to turn on at various points for a long time to come. The point is that this makes it particularly important that it is sustainable and properly resourced.

To do so, it should be organised and provided by public health teams with the responsibility of schools being limited to identifying a venue and communicating with parents and staff.

And if this is likely to keep happening, the government should be telling schools so they can factor it into their planning.

The immediate problem for some schools with Friday’s announcement is that they have already arranged to hold mock exams at the start of term – in line with the contingency arrangements in case public exams have to be cancelled again next summer – in spaces which will now need to be used for Covid testing.

Then there is the issue of ventilating classrooms which is still not resolved some 20 months after the pandemic began. It is widely recognised that good ventilation is an effective way of reducing the risk of transmission of the virus. And yet progress by the government in this respect has been painfully slow.

For much of the crisis the DfE has relied on guidance which recommends that school and college staff open external windows despite the obvious fact that this makes it impossible to maintain a comfortable temperature during cold weather.

At the start of this term, the DfE announced the roll-out of carbon dioxide monitors which alert staff when a classroom needs ventilating. And now it is providing 1,000 DfE-funded air cleaning units for SEND and alternative provision settings, while planning to signpost other schools and colleges to an “online marketplace” to purchase these units.

Surely, the government should be providing DfE-funded air cleaning units for all schools and colleges as required. It is an issue which again links to the question of having in place sustainable and long-term control measures to reduce the risk of infection from Delta, Omicron, and whatever new variant appears in the future.

Why has it taken the government so long to reach this point? And why, even now, is its approach so penny-pinching?

There are other things the government could and should be doing to support schools and colleges too – such as an on-going workforce fund to help with the cost of supply cover, and greater public promotion of the importance of pupils carrying out twice-weekly home testing.

There was a time when at least some of the foot-dragging muddle we have seen from the government was partially excusable because of the unprecedented and extraordinary nature of the pandemic. But that time has passed. We now know only too well its impact and the likelihood that there will be peaks and troughs for a long time to come.

The government has to better support the sector so that we can live with the reality of Covid.

  • Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Read his previous articles for SecEd, via http://bit.ly/seced-barton


Further information & resources

DfE: Guidance: Actions for schools during the coronavirus outbreak, last updated November 29, 2021: www.gov.uk/government/publications/actions-for-schools-during-the-coronavirus-outbreak


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