More air-cleaning units would be ‘waste of money’ and 6 things we learned from Zahawi

Education secretary addresses MPs as schools reopen amid Omicron surge

Education secretary addresses MPs as schools reopen amid Omicron surge

The education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has addressed MPs about the return of pupils to school amid fears about the surge of the Omicron Covid variant.

Here’s what we learned.

1. More air-cleaning units would be ‘waste of money’

Over the weekend, the government announced that 7,000 additional air-cleaning units would be provided to schools reporting high CO2 levels.

Ministers have faced challenge that this falls far short of what is required, with around 20,000 schools and between 250,000 to 300,000 classrooms.

Zahawi said today that “feedback we received from schools using CO2 monitors is there are classrooms that can’t mitigate easily so need air purifiers”.

“That’s the funnel you go through, otherwise you waste taxpayers’ money buying 300,000 air purifiers for classrooms that simply do not need them.”

He said there had been “some corroboration of that modelling” from Teacher Tapp.

The organisation found in December that around 4 per cent of respondents taught in a classroom with a CO2 reading of more than 1,500ppm, meaning the government’s allocation was “about right”.

But the pollsters also found that 47 per cent of primary teachers and 73 per cent of secondary teachers reported not having a CO2 monitor in their classroom – meaning the true figure may be higher.

Teacher Tapp data on CO2 monitors

The government has also committed to providing 1,000 extra purifiers for special schools – bringing the total to 8,000 units across state schools.

2. Staff absence at 8% and ‘likely to rise’

Zahawi told MPs that at the end of last year, staff absences of about 8 per cent were reported, “and that’s probably likely to rise with increasing cases in school and of course young people as we return to school”.

However it’s not clear if he was talking to Covid-related absences or absences overall, which did total around 8 per cent earlier in December.

The last published data, from December 9, showed 2.4 per cent of teachers and leaders, and 2.1 per cent of teaching assistants and other staff were absent due to Covid. On the same date, 5.5 per cent of teachers and leaders and 5.6 per cent of other staff were off for other reasons.

The DfE is still collecting data from schools, but this is published fortnightly and wasn’t published over Christmas, meaning we won’t see up-to-date figures until next week.

3. Jabs for at-risk primary pupils to start this month

Before Christmas, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommended that children aged five to 11 in a “clinical risk group”, or who are household contacts of someone who is immunosuppressed, should be offered two 10 micrograms doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine.

Zahawi told MPs today that any children in this category could get a jab “by the middle of this month”.

4. Second doses for 12-15-year-olds available

The JCVI also recommended last month that a Pfizer booster be offered to vulnerable children aged 12 to 15.

Zahawi said today these were “now on offer” through the NHS booking service, and that vaccinations in schools would resume next Monday.

5. First returning teachers heading to classroom, but no data yet

Before Christmas, Zahawi issued a call to former teachers to offer their services as supply staff to help schools struggling with staff absences.

A portal was created which links those with qualified teacher status with supply agencies working in their area.

Zahawi said government had “already seen the first volunteers heading back to our classrooms”, including at least two MPs and staff from the Department for Education.

But he declined to give a figure for the number recruited through the scheme, saying he would “have a better idea on the exact number of how many former teachers have come forward to lend their support at the end of this week”.

6. 31m tests sent to education settings

Schools and other education settings were invited at the end of November to order more supplies of lateral-flow tests, in part to aid with a call for secondary schools to vaccinate pupils on-site in the first week of term.

Zahawi said those settings that did place an order “will have received their allocation of the 31 million tests in advance of their pupils, students and staff returning through a dedicated supply channel”.

It is not clear if he means 31 million tests, or 31 million test kits. Prime minister Boris Johnson referred earlier to 31 million test kits.

Schools running out of kits can order more from “usual channels” or call 119 for advice, Zahawi said.

7. Summer exams going ahead as planned

Zahawi confirmed today that exams planned for this summer would go ahead, albeit with some adjustments to take into account missed learning.

“In the summer we will be going ahead with exams, rightly so, recognising that there has been much disruption to students studying,” he added.

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