The Department of Education (DfE) has announced that high school and college students must wear face masks in classrooms to reduce the spread of Omicron at the start of the next semester.
Face coverings are currently recommended in public areas for pupils in grades seven and above, but the new advice will extend to classrooms.
The guidelines are designed “to maximize the number of children in school and college for the maximum amount of time,” according to the Education Department.
The UK set another record for daily Covid cases on New Year’s Eve, with 189,846 positive tests confirmed, and England saw another 162,572 cases on New Year’s Day.
The Education Department said the new rules, which only apply to children in seventh grade and above, will remain in place until January 26, when existing Plan B regulations expire.
7,000 new air purifiers are being introduced in schools to improve ventilation in buildings.
Amid growing concerns about the impact of Covid-related staff absences, Ofsted has also recommended that early years settings, schools and colleges request that inspections be postponed if they are severely affected by staff shortages, the DfE announced.
Oftsed has already announced that it will not inspect any secondary schools during the first week of the term in January while schools conduct Covid testing for pupils on site.
The Department of Education also announced that Ofsted will not require inspectors who are also school, university and early years leaders to conduct any inspections in order to allow them to “focus on their leadership responsibilities at this critical time”.
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has welcomed the reintroduction of face masks into classrooms but acknowledged it will create challenges for staff and pupils.
Secretary General Jeff Barton said: “While there are clear drawbacks to the use of face coverings in the classroom, it is clear that the Omicron variant poses a very significant additional risk to education with the potential for further widespread disruption to schools, colleges and young people.
“It is absolutely essential that everything possible be done to reduce transmission and ensure that children stay in school, and therefore we support the re-covering of the face in classrooms for students in grades seven and above.”
Mr Barton said current advice to wear face masks in public areas meant pupils were “already used to using them” and said he was confident schools and colleges would take the new rules “in their stride”.
While Mr Barton welcomed Ofsted’s changes, he cautioned that staff shortages remained the “biggest problem” facing schools, and said it could still mean that some classes and study groups had to be sent home for “short periods of time” for distance learning.
Dr Mary Busted, Joint Secretary of the NEU Teachers’ Union, has called on Ofsted to go ahead and suspend all inspections except for those to protect concerns.
“It’s hard to see how Ofsted would function without the services of principals,” she said. Rather than falter, Ofsted should suspend all inspections other than protecting concerns.
Due to the current high infection rates, every school will be greatly affected by Covid. The focus should be on the primary goal of providing continuity of education to as many students as possible, not on jumping through the hoops of Ofsted.”
She also criticized the announcement of the new air purifiers as “completely inappropriate”.
“Seven thousand air purifiers are one thing, but totally insufficient for what should be a basic human right, which is to have clean air in every classroom and every educational setting,” she said.
“The fact that the government introduced additional scrubbers shows that they are aware of the problem but with more than 300,000 classrooms in England, they have failed to provide an effective solution.”
Education Minister Nazim Al-Zahawi admitted that there was “no doubt” that Omicron “presents challenges” for schools and thanked the sector for responding with “hard effort”.
But he insisted that education was the government’s “first priority” and expressed his determination to keep school buildings open.
“Being in the classroom is without a doubt the best place for children and I look forward to welcoming the pupils again next week to continue learning face to face, which is very important for their education and well-being,” he said.
The Prime Minister and I have made it clear that education is our number one priority. These actions will strengthen our supportive schools as we do everything we can to reduce disruption. “