A Return to Restrictions

Author: Ross McDermott

Posted: 14 Dec 2021

Estimated time to read: 3 mins

With concerns raised over the new Omicron variant of Covid-19, the government introduced new guidance to schools across England and Wales. This article gives you an overview of the variant, how guidance differs and how schools might be impacted in the future when guidelines are reviewed?

What is the new variant?

The new Omicron variant, first discovered in South Africa, is highlighted as a variant of concern by the World Health Organisation due to the rise of cases within South Africa. The variant differs from other Covid-19 variants, such as Delta, due to its mutations, which can make it more infective. 

Whilst research is still currently being conducted to find the full effects of the new variant, researchers at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) suggest it has a 'substantial' ability to evade immunity from previous coronavirus infection. However, it may take some time to know the full severity of the variant and whether it is more deadly.

Previous guidance

Restrictions within schools began to fade out early this year. Before that, schools mirrored many of the same restrictions that applied to the public, including wearing face masks, social distancing, and contact tracing. With restrictions being relaxed in May and returning to schools in September, face masks, social distancing and contact tracing were no longer required. However, with the Omicron variant now suggested to be in over 20 countries, new restrictions have been introduced that impact the public and schools.

New guidance

With new guidance being introduced on the 27th November, in England, masks are now recommended when moving around the school and in communal areas outside of classrooms for adults and pupils in year seven onwards. Masks do not, however, need to be worn outdoors. 

With contact tracing still being handled by NHS Test and Trace, education settings are not expected to undertake this responsibility. Though, individuals who have been identified as a close contact of a suspected or confirmed case of the Omicron variant, irrespective of vaccination status and age, will be contacted directly and required to self-isolate. They will also be immediately asked to book a PCR test. This means children 12-15 who were recently made eligible and may have had their 1st dose of the vaccine will still need to self isolate.

Rules differ slightly across the rest of the UK. In Wales, new guidance urges secondary school pupils and staff to wear face masks in the classroom as well as in communal areas.

In Scotland, face coverings were previously compulsory and remain compulsory. Primary school staff need to wear masks in corridors and shared areas such as canteens and staff rooms. 

In Northern Ireland, post-primary pupils must wear a face-covering in school, including classrooms, corridors and confined spaces. as well as on school and public transport. Staff are encouraged to wear masks in class and other school areas - but can remove them if they can socially distance themselves.

How can schools prepare for the future?

It is hard to determine what impact the Omicron variant might have on schools in the future as there is still little we don't know about it. However, with the correct planning and support, schools can prepare for any disruptions that may come as a result of a return to restrictions.

This includes putting the correct tools and procedures in place to support staff with distance learning and ensuring all teachers are trained on how to use remote learning platforms effectively. Helping staff and students understand the importance of personal hygiene and following government guidelines also ensures your school can remain a safe place to learn for everyone.

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