SCHOOLS should reintroduce Covid bubbles to keep kids safe against the new Covid super-strain Omicron, unions have warned.
Education chiefs claim reviving the system, which saw whole classes sent home after one positive test, will "ensure pupils don't miss out on any more learning".
They are also calling for face masks to be made mandatory in all areas – not just corridors – and air filtration devices to be sent to every school in the country.
These measures will help protect students and staff from the rapidly spreading Omicron, of which there are now 11 confirmed cases in the UK, it is claimed.
Unison head of education Mike Short said: "Ministers need to do all they can to contain the spread in schools and minimise disruption to learning.
"Face masks can’t be limited to communal areas. If coverings are to have the desired effect, they should be worn in all areas of secondary schools, including classrooms, as is the case in Scotland.
"Proper ventilation is also vital to tackling the virus in all its variations. Air filtration devices should be sent to every school that needs them.
"Reviving school bubbles will also help ensure pupils don’t miss out on any more learning."
The "paralysing" bubble system, ditched in July when lockdown restrictions lifted, put pupils into groups, usually based on class or year group.
If one person in their bubble tested positive for Covid, the entire group had to isolate for ten days.
In some cases this meant whole year groups being sent home following a minor outbreak at a school.
And at one stage a staggering 800,000 kids missed out on learning in a single week.
It led to concerns that many students were missing class unnecessarily – especially after months of disrupted education.
It also saw parents being forced to take time off work to stay home with their families when no childcare was available.
Senior government vaccines advisor Professor Adam Finn said in July that bubbles risked paralysing society and bringing in a lockdown by the back door.
Despite the unease over the summer, Mr Short's calls for further action today have been echoed by other teaching unions.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint NEU general secretary, said: "The best place for children is at school and the last thing we want is to see more disruption to education.
"Given the arrival of Omicron in the UK, it is clear that more mitigations should be in place in schools.
"Covid does not recognise the difference between a corridor and a classroom, and a failure to require face coverings in both areas in secondary schools is a mis-step in the Government's latest guidance."
She also called for arrangements for close contacts to "mirror those in Scotland" which state children must isolate until they get a negative PCR test.
NASUWT general secretary Dr Patrick Roach added: "The reintroduction of the requirement for face coverings to be worn in communal areas in all settings by staff and visitors and by pupils in year 7 and above, including on public transport, is helpful, but there is strong evidence that the government needs to go further, including by reintroducing the requirement for wearing face coverings in classrooms in light of the persistently high daily number of coronavirus cases."
He also called for clearer instruction on close contact rules, as well as more frequent and effective testing.
And Deborah Lawson, community assistant general secretary of Voice, raised concerns over the rapidly rising infection rates among children and young people.
But she said she is particularly worried about the short notice for schools and colleges in the run-up to Christmas.
New Covid measures for schools
Pupils, teachers and visitors are all advised to wear masks in communal areas such as common rooms and corridors – but not classrooms.
While it's only "strongly" advised and not a legal requirement, it goes further than the national compulsion to wear face coverings in shops.
Kids in Year 7 and above should still put on masks on the school bus as has been the advice for some weeks.
While the vast majority of pupils currently don't have to isolate if they come into contact with an infected person, under tomorrow's new rules they might have to.
At the moment any Covid contact who is double-vaxxed or under-18 doesn't have to quarantine, exempting most school kids.
But anyone who comes into contact with a case of Omicron will now have to stay at home for 10 days regardless of their jab status.
Guidance from the Department for Education released last night urged teachers to reconsider the need for trips abroad.
All arrivals coming back into the UK have to isolate until their day two PCR test comes back negative.
The advice says: "Schools, out of school settings and colleges will want to consider whether to go ahead with planned international educational visits at this time, recognising the risk of disruption to education resulting from the need to isolate and test on arrival back into the UK."
"With less than three weeks of term left, schools and colleges are once again having to pick up the pieces of a last minute plan," she said.
"Not only will this mean some staff working through the holidays to prepare the site and organise staffing, but it will delay the start of term for almost all learners, putting extra pressure on staff and students at a time when they want to be focusing on teaching and learning."
Despite fears schools could be forced to break up early for Christmas amid the Omicron chaos, Downing Street confirmed today this would not be the case.
Boris Johnson's official spokesman dismissed calls from union leaders to send kids home ahead of schedule – stressing their education was "vital".
It followed last night's release of new guidance for schools to follow.
It "strongly advises" pupils, staff and visitors to wear masks in "communal areas" like corridors – but not yet classrooms.
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