Staff absences are likely to rise in schools this term, the Education Secretary has admitted.
Nadhim Zahawi has told MPs that teaching must remain face-to-face for children to have the best learning experience.
He said: “We must do everything we can, everything in our power to keep all education and childcare settings open and teaching in-person.”
Outlining measures for schools in England as the new term begins, the minister added: “Schools will be suffering some degree of staff absences.
“At the end of last year the figure was about 8% of staff off, and that is probably likely to rise with increasing cases in school and of course young people as we return to school.”
Last month, the Education Secretary called on former and retired teachers to return to the classroom as part of efforts to tackle staff shortages.
Mr Zahawi said the first volunteers of former teachers have returned to schools – including MP for Eastbourne Caroline Ansell and MP for Stoke-on-Trent North Jonathan Gullis.
But he told MPs that he will have a “better idea” on the exact number of former teachers that have come forward by “the end of this week”.
Pupils across the country are returning to class this week after the festive break, with new advice for secondary school pupils in England to wear face coverings in lessons due to a rise in Covid-19 cases.
School leaders have told of their worries that staff shortages could worsen in the new term and cause further disruption to children’s education.
Some schools are reporting that up to one in five staff members could be missing following the Christmas holidays.
Ahead of the start of term, the Department for Education (DfE) told headteachers they may want to consider “combining classes” in the event of staff shortages to keep face-to-face teaching in place.
But a coalition of unions has suggested that schools which routinely ask staff to teach more pupils in merged classes amid shortages should be challenged.
A “safety checklist” from five trade unions representing teachers and support staff says merging classes “should not be adopted” as it will “increase virus transmission” and lead to “further disruption”.
The advice – from the National Education Union (NEU), NASUWT teaching union, Unison, GMB and Unite – urges teachers expected to routinely accept extra pupils from combining classes to “urgently” raise it with their union.
It comes after Mr Zahawi told heads to consider merging classes, or sending groups of children home, if the number of staff off work due to Covid-19 reaches critical levels.
Addressing the reintroduction of face masks in classrooms, Mr Zahawi admitted to MPs on Wednesday that the situation was “not ideal”, “distracting for children” and not great “for any child’s wellbeing”.
He said he has commissioned his department to research the impact of wearing masks on children.
But Mr Zahawi added that face coverings in school will “help reduce transmission at a time when rates of infection are high”.
He said “My department has also looked at some observational data from a sample of 123 schools where face coverings had been in use in the autumn term and found that there was a greater reduction in Covid absence compared to those where students didn’t wear face coverings.”
The Education Secretary said face coverings in class will be recommended “for the shortest possible time” and he added that he hopes they will be able to be removed after a review of data on January 26.
Mr Gullis asked for reassurance from Mr Zahawi that exams will go ahead.
The Education Secretary replied: “I can absolutely give him that assurance.”
Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said that for the Government “children are never a priority”.
Ms Phillipson told the House of Commons: “Children are having to be wrapped up in their coats to learn. It is incompetent, complacent and inadequate. Our children deserve better.”
She added: “On vaccination, on December 30 barely half of eligible children aged 12 and over had received even their first vaccination. Now, we have seen in the last month with the booster jab what can be done when the political will is there. But for this Government our children are never a priority.
“On testing, the Government has encouraged parents to ensure their children are taking lateral flow tests twice a week. Now, I looked last night at lateral flow tests online. There were none available for home delivery. We cannot test our children twice a week if there are not the tests available to do it.”