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Schools face mass closure across France as Omicron surges – fears UK could follow

Coronavirus could be 'behind us by Spring' predicts professor

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Since the beginning of November, more than 300,000 children and adolescents in France have tested positive for Covid-19, French health officials have warned. These figures have exceeded the peaks of all previous waves of the pandemic.

Now, health minister Olivier Veran has been urged to postpone the start of the school year, which is set to start on January 3.

In an open letter to the health minister, health workers wrote: “We, the health professionals […] are very worried about the current level of viral circulation of the coronavirus among school-age children and adolescents.

“We expect an unprecedented surge in the coming weeks in the care of children with paediatric multisystemic inflammatory syndrome (PIMS), as well as sequelae related to the evolution, in some cases, of a long-lasting form of the disease (‘paediatric long-covid’).”

They continued: “We deplore (…) the poor resources deployed so far by the Ministry of Education to curb the epidemic in schools, whether to combat the airborne risk of contamination or to organise effective testing campaigns.”

The LR presidential candidate Valerie Pecresse also called for the start of the school year to be postponed by a week,

This measure was ruled out by the Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer.

Last week, the UK Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi warned the spread of the Omicron variant could bring disruption to schools until Easter.

Mr Zahawi said: “It has been my absolute priority since day one in the role to do everything in my power to protect education – which is why today I am asking any teachers no longer in the profession to come forward if they are available to temporarily fill absences in the new year.”

He added: “Although 99.9 percent of schools have consistently been open this term, with cases of Omicron increasing we must make sure schools and colleges have the teachers available to remain open for face-to-face education.

“Anyone who thinks they can help should get the process started now on the Get Into Teaching website, and everyone should get boosted now to help reduce the amount of disruption from the virus in the new year.”

Mr Zahawi called for qualified teachers who left the profession to return to help the nation cope through the crisis.

In a statement, the Department for Education (DfE) said: “The Omicron variant is expected to continue to cause increased staff absence levels in the spring term, and some local areas may struggle to find sufficient numbers of supply teachers available unless former staff come forward.”

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In March 2020, the Government set up a temporary register to support former social workers to return to frontline practice.

To address the current emergency, it is now working with Teach First to bring those who trained as teachers but work in other jobs back into the country’s classrooms.

Russell Hobby, CEO of Teach First, said: “Teachers have gone above and beyond throughout the pandemic, doing an inspirational job to support their pupils and communities in the face of adversity.

“Yet, the disruption to school life and extended periods at home mean pupils’ education has inevitably suffered, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

He added: “Given the challenges that schools now face, we want to see what more can be done to help – including how we, and those of our alumni who have trained as teachers but currently work outside the profession, may be able to support schools to remain open safely in the new year.”

Dr Nikki Kanani, Medical Director of Primary Care for NHS England and NHS Improvement, joined the Education Secretary in his mission: “We’re asking teachers to come forward during the school holidays to get protected before school starts again.

“We have got pop-ups, we’ve got mobile units, we’re working with community and faith leaders to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to get this protection, so please come forward.”

Over the Christmas weekend, the UK recorded 122,186 new coronavirus cases and a further 137 deaths.

This marked the highest number of new infections since the beginning of the pandemic.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is not expected to announce further restrictions to control the Omicron variant in England.

Additional reporting by Maria Ortega

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