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The minister said the Government was looking at what measures to put in place “to boost supply capacity”, adding that Department for Education (DfE) senior officials have begun discussing plans with key stakeholders.
It comes amid reports that some schools are experiencing “very severe low attendance” among teachers and pupils ahead of the Christmas break.
Headteachers’ unions have warned of possible disruption to in-person lessons in the new year if the Omicron variant leads to even higher staff absences.
In an email to school and college leaders ahead of the Christmas holidays, Mr Zahawi said: “We know that in areas with high absence a particular issue can be the availability of supply staff. We want to make sure that as many supply staff as possible are available to schools and colleges.”
You can support this effort by using your own professional and personal networks to encourage others to sign up to offer temporary help
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi
The Education Secretary added: “We will work with sector leaders and supply agencies over the coming days to offer advice to ex-teachers who want to provide support to schools and colleges.
“We will help them to register with supply agencies as the best way to boost the temporary workforce available to the sector.”
In the plea to heads on Thursday, Mr Zahawi said: “From now, you can support this effort by using your own professional and personal networks to encourage others to sign up to offer temporary help.”
The DfE has also announced it will be extending its workforce fund for schools and colleges facing the greatest staffing and funding challenges amid Covid.
The fund, which helps schools to cover the cost of staff absences, is now being extended until the February half-term rather than December 31.
It comes after the latest DfE figures showed that 2.4% of teachers and school leaders were absent from schools in England due to Covid-19 related reasons on December 9, up from 2.0% on November 25.
Some pupils are being asked to take laptops home before Christmas as part of contingency measures in case lessons have to move online in Janaury.
The reality is that if school staff become ill with Covid there are going to be challenges in maintaining provision, be that in-person or remote
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of NAHT
Geoff Barton general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “Everybody hopes that education will resume as near to normal as possible in January after the Christmas holidays.”
But he added: “The difficulty will be if there are very high levels of staff absence as a result of the impact of the Omicron variant of Covid-19.
“It is likely that this would result in schools having to send home classes or year groups, or closing for on-site teaching, for short periods of time and providing remote education for those at home.
“It may also be the case that local public health teams advise attendance restrictions for short periods of time if there are high case numbers in order to break chains of transmission of the virus.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT said: “There is a very real concern about the impact on schools of exponentially rising case numbers.
“The reality is that if school staff become ill with Covid there are going to be challenges in maintaining provision, be that in-person or remote.
“Every single school leader will be determined to minimise any disruption to learning, but it does seem as though choppy waters lie ahead and that some form of disruption at the start of next term is looking sadly inevitable.”
In Wales, schools will have two days at the start of term in January to assess staffing capacity and to make plans for moving to remote lessons if needed.
In England, secondary schools will receive a “small amount of flexibility” on when they return so they can test pupils for Covid-19 after the Christmas break, education minister Alex Burghart said.
But he told MPs on Wednesday: “The Government is committed to ensuring schools open in January as normal.”
Health minister Gillian Keegan has suggested that children aged 12-15 getting their coronavirus vaccines should be enough to keep schools open in January.