Omicron variant - why schools won't break up early for Christmas

The new Covid variant, B.1.1.529, also known as the Omicron variant, has been sparking alarm in Downing Street. Mandatory mask-wearing in shops and on public transport has been reintroduced, alongside tighter international travel restrictions. Could schools close early this Christmas?

Downing Street has addressed concerns that schools could break up early for Christmas.

A spokesperson for Boris Johnson said closing schools early was “not something we are looking to do”.

They added: “Education is vital and we’ve seen how disruptive the restrictions can be.

“We’ve always taken steps to keep schools open until we’ve absolutely no other choice.”

Omicron variant - why schools won't break up early for Christmas
© GETTY Picture of school children wearing masks
Omicron variant - why schools won't break up early for Christmas
© GETTY Picture of someone wearing a mask and a sign reminding people to wear them

The Prime Minister’s spokesperson added school children wouldn’t be exempt from isolating for 10 days after coming into contact with the new variant.

When asked if children could be made exempt they said: “That’s not what we are proposing.

“We believe our measures strike the balance between keeping children in face-to-face learning while ensuring education settings remain as safe as possible while we investigate this new variant.”

Downing Street has also assured schools that they are not asking them to cancel their planned nativity plays over the next few weeks.

Omicron variant - why schools won't break up early for Christmas
© GETTY Picture of someone wearing a mask in a classroom

Health minister, Edward Argar, said nativity plays are “important to young people who’ve had a rough time [over the pandemic]”.

The Department for Education has released new guidelines for staff and pupils to follow to help stop the spread of the new variant in schools.

It “strongly advises” that masks are worn in communal areas, such as corridors and on school transport, but masks are not yet compulsory in classrooms.

This new guidance will be reviewed in three weeks.

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Omicron variant - why schools won't break up early for Christmas
© GETTY Picture of people wearing masks on tubes

Face masks are already mandatory for the majority of pupils in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has said schools must remain open, but restrictions should be followed to buy the Government more time to decide its next steps.

Mr Zahawi told ITV: “[To] keep schools open, do all the things necessary, like face masks in communal areas to protect the education in the classroom.

“Face masks are not a panacea. These are all interventions that just help you slow the virus from accelerating too quickly.

“Just to give the scientists a bit more time, a bit more headroom to actually decide what do we need to do next.”

In light of the emergence of this new variant, the Department for Education has asked schools to start testing pupils again when they return from their Christmas holidays in January.

It said: “Testing all pupils in school boosts testing participation and will help reduce transmission after a period of social mixing over the school holidays.

“Tests, PPE and funding to support your workforce will be provided as before. After this test on return, pupils should continue to test in line with Government guidelines.”

But the Association of School and College Leaders has said these plans are “not reasonable,” and criticised the “short timeframe” imposed by the Department for Education.

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