Schools are cancelling Christmas events and moving nativities online amid Omicron fears, as ministers are blasted for “getting involved and stoking the fire”.
Prime minister Boris Johnson urged schools not to cancel nativity plays this week, despite concerns around Covid absences and the emergence of the new variant.
As of Thursday, 22 cases of the variant had been traced in England. Targeted testing was taking place at two schools earlier this week.
The government on Sunday evening “strongly advised” schools to reintroduce face coverings in communal areas for adults in all schools, and for pupils in secondaries.
Pupils who are close contacts of Omicron Covid cases will also be told to isolate for 10 days.
Nativities go virtual
St James the Great RC school, in south London, cancelled in-person nativity performances on Wednesday. Instead, the school is looking to live stream them on Microsoft Teams.
A fundraising Christmas fair, normally attended by up to 1,500 people, has been cancelled.
Headteacher Chris Andrew said the decision was made after discussions with the local council and public health.
“It just seems like a sensible thing to do, we’ve worked too hard to keep numbers down,” he added. “I’ve got a responsibility to my staff, pupils and to the families to take the bigger picture into account.”
Evelyn Forde, headteacher at Copthall School in north London, cancelled a surprise staff pantomime performance for students. She will decide this week whether to cancel the winter concert and move it online.
“It’s so close to the end of term that I really need to consider the risks,” Forde said.
This is the third year of uncertainty over nativities. Schools cancelled nativities last year as the Alpha variant took off, while activities were disrupted in 2019 as classrooms became polling stations for the snap general election.
A Teacher Tapp poll on Saturday found a quarter of teachers’ schools were planning to run virtual nativities, with 11 per cent cancelled altogether.
Just over half of the 2,299 respondents worked for schools that were hoping to allow visitors in person.
Simon Smith, headteacher at East Whitby Primary Academy in North Yorkshire, said their two nativities will be split over four shows so each has fewer visitors.
At Whitehill Junior School in Hertfordshire, headteacher Steve Mills had already taken the decision to spread their plays out over three days before the variant arrived.
“We will have a CO2 monitor in the hall and have the doors open,” Mills said. “But if the data changes, I will postpone the performances.”
Likewise at Our Lady of Compassion Catholic Primary School, in Solihull, headteacher Neil Emery planned a shorter, outdoor nativity weeks ago due to Covid.
Heads ‘handed a poisoned chalice’
It’s not just nativities. Northern Education Trust, which runs 21 schools, had only weeks ago begun to relax some Covid measures. But on Wednesday it pulled face-to-face year group assemblies. They will instead go online until the end of this term.
The Department for Education tweeted this week that festive events can go ahead this year, adding it is a “matter for schools and early years to decide if they want to host them”.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi told schools on Monday to “carry on” with nativity plans.
Asked if plays should be scrapped, Johnson said: “We don’t want people to cancel such events and we think that, overwhelmingly, the best thing for kids is to be at school.”
Headteacher Andrew said while it was “fair enough” that the decision rest with schools, it “feels like they are gaslighting us, that they are setting us up against parents”.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of school leaders’ union ASCL, said school leaders have been “handed a poisoned chalice with the government’s insistence” that performances go ahead.
“School leaders already have enough to deal with without the government getting involved, telling parents that schools can ensure their safety when it is obvious they can make no such guarantees,” he added.
ASCL has written to government asking them to “stop stoking the fire and to allow schools to make their own reasoned judgments on whether or not to go ahead with staging performances”.
The DfE said it is a matter for schools to decide if they want to host such events, but local public health experts may suggest they do not hold gatherings if Covid rates are high.
Larchwood Primary School, in Essex, moved one class to remote learning and brought in specialist testing after an Omicron case was linked to the school. Similar testing was taking place at a school in Nottinghamshire.