Schools have been advised by ministers to start preparing for COVID staff shortages by merging classes into larger groups and considering “flexible” teaching options.

The latest advice sent to schools in an email from the Department of Education and published in an open letter by Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi comes as many pupils prepare to return to the classroom on Tuesday.

It has already been announced that all secondary school students in England will be required to wear facemasks in class as well as in communal areas when they return.

Pupils will also be expected to take lateral flow tests on-site and take a test twice a week from home.

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Unions welcome face masks in class

Combine classes and take ‘flexible approach’

Now, ministers have suggested that schools combine classes in order to ensure they stay open and “consider ways to implement a flexible approach to learning” if face-to-face teaching becomes impossible.

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In his open letter to school leaders, Mr Zahawi said this involves “utilising all your available teaching and non-teaching workforce to maximise on-site education for as many pupils as possible while you flexibly deliver provision either on-site or remotely to some pupils”.

However, he added that this “should only be on a short-term measure”.

“I urge you to do everything in your power to protect face-to-face learning for our children and young people and am confident that you will of course make every endeavour to do so,” he said.

It comes after England and Wales reported 137,583 new COVID cases in the latest 24-hour period meaning more than 1.1 million people had a confirmed positive COVID test result between 27 December 2021 and 2 January 2022 – a 43% increase compared with the previous seven days.

And government forecasts have predicted up to a quarter of public sector workers could be off sick this month because of the Omicron wave of COVID infections.

‘Vaccinations remain our best defence’

The education secretary said getting vaccinated against COVID is the “best defence” against the virus as he encouraged children and young teens to come forward for the jab.

Latest figures from the Labour party show almost half a million 16 and 17-year-olds remain unvaccinated.

Mr Zahawi said: “Vaccinations remain our best defence against COVID-19 and that is why every child and young person aged 12 and over is eligible to receive the vaccine.

“It is also vital that all of us – including parents, carers, teachers, early years professionals, eligible students and everyone working in education and childcare – go out as soon as they possibly can to get the booster jab, to protect the NHS, protect our way of life, and protect education and childcare.”

Stephen Morgan MP, Labour’s shadow schools minister, said the government has shown “no sense of urgency” in getting vaccines to young people.

“The Conservatives’ chaotic, last-minute approach is damaging student’s education, and this cannot go on,” he said.

As of 1 January, 51,771,547 people had received their first vaccine dose which is 90% of the UK’s population aged 12 and over.

More than 47.4 million people had been double jabbed and 33,9287,754 had been given a booster or a third dose.

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Calls for former teachers to return

In a Twitter thread, Mr Zahawi reassured people that in-person teaching will “continue to be the expected norm” and praised teachers for their “herculean effort”.

He also called upon former educators to come forward to temporarily support workforces in the new term, saying many have already stepped up.

“It’s this Blitz spirit that will be essential in turning the tide on COVID,” he said.

Rev Steve Chalke, the founder of one of England’s largest academy trusts – Oasis Academy Learning, told Sky News 10% of staff at his schools had been off work after testing positive for coronavirus or with other illnesses before Christmas, and staffing was still “the biggest unknown”.

7,000 air purifiers are ‘completely inadequate’

Another measure being taken by the government to protect education settings is the installation of air purification units.

An additional 7,000 are set to be provided to schools, to add to the 1,000 already announced, alongside 350,000 CO2 monitors.

However, Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said this did not go far enough.

“Seven thousand more air purifiers is something but it is completely inadequate for what should be a basic human right, the provision of clean air in every classroom in every educational setting,” she said.