Professor Neil Ferguson said children returning to class would likely drive up infections as teaching unions warned some pupils could be sent home due to staff shortages
Schools are braced for a surge in infections as they begin reopening after Christmas.
Infectious disease expert Professor Neil Ferguson said children returning to classrooms was likely to trigger another increase in Covid cases, but they will be mild.
Prof Ferguson, one of the architect’s of the first lockdown, said the Delta variant had been “really driven by school-age children and by the older age groups” in recent months.
“Omicron slipped in the middle in 18 to 45-year-olds really but it didn’t have much time to get into school children before schools shut and we expect to now see quite high infection levels – of mild infection I should emphasise – in school-age children.”
Teaching unions warned of looming staffing shortages caused by high infection rates, which could lead to major disruption.
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Masks are now required in secondary classrooms and older pupils have to take lateral flow tests on their first day back to prevent Covid chaos.
Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said there was mounting concern about lack of teachers.
“Frankly if schools don’t have safe staffing levels then it may also be the case that pupils regrettably may have to be sent home,” he said.
Up to a third of teaching staff were absent before Christmas in some schools, he said.
He added: “We don’t think that picture is going to have gotten any better for the start of this term.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary for school leaders’ union NAHT, said heads were battling to open primary schools and to arrange testing for secondary pupils.
He said: “We are hearing from our members that they are finding some pupils are absent and some staff are off sick or isolating. It is not a uniform picture, but at the moment school contingency plans are being relied upon to keep the system working.
“It remains to be seen how that progresses during the rest of the week and further into the term. It only takes a small increase in staff absence to begin to cause real problems.”
Avril Chambers, GMB National Officer, said the protections for schools fell far short of what was needed.
She said: “Once again it is another knee jerk reaction by a shambolic Government. It is too little, too late.”
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “We know children and young people want to be in the classroom and it is the very best place for their education and wellbeing, which is why face-to-face teaching continues to be an absolute priority.
“The safety measures we have put in place strike a balance between managing transmission risk with regular testing and enhanced ventilation and hygiene, and reducing disruption to in-person learning.”