Schools are drawing up plans to send whole year groups home amid growing concern that the Covid omicron variant will lead to staff shortages spiralling out of control in January.
Headteachers have warned the Prime Minister that they may be forced to prioritise key age groups for time in the classroom, while others are told to learn remotely.
The biggest threat to keeping children in face-to-face education will be high numbers of teachers forced into self-isolation after testing positive for Covid-19.
Primary schools in villages and small towns are understood to be considered by Whitehall officials as especially at risk of teacher shortages, given they have small numbers of staff.
The Government has already admitted that schools are likely to face disruption until Easter and is urging retired teachers to return to the classroom to fill gaps in timetables.
Sources at the Department for Education (DfE) said that their dedicated website aimed at encouraging former school staff to sign up as supply teachers had been visited around 25,000 times since it was launched a week ago. They were unable to confirm how many people had actually signed up to the scheme, estimating that it was “at least hundreds”.
But headteachers and parents fear that the scheme will not be enough to stem the tide of teacher absences and keep schools fully open next term.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said headteachers were “hoping for the best but planning for the worst”.
He told The Telegraph: “If you have a fixed pool available of those who can teach young people, then the only final resort schools and colleges have is to start thinking about the certain year groups that should be prioritised in the short term.”
Boris Johnson will meet government scientists and advisers on Monday morning for an update on how quickly the omicron variant is spreading and its impact on hospitalisation and death rates.
How is omicron comparing to previous waves?
By Sunday evening, no recall of Parliament had been announced. Similarly, no urgent meeting of the Cabinet to discuss tightening the Covid rules had been called.
Government insiders continue to say it is possible no new Covid restrictions for England will be announced before New Year’s Eve, but they stress the situation remains fluid.
One avenue open to Downing Street is to publish new guidance, for example on limited household mixing, which would not need legal changes and could be adopted without Parliament being recalled.
Officials at the DfE wrote to headteachers earlier this month telling them to “revisit” their outbreak plans and ensure contingency plans are up to date so they are “prepared for any future changes” in January.
Mr Barton said that this week heads would be “scenario planning” for the new term and explained that this included “making decisions about what would be the priority groups coming back in if it were needed. If you can’t have all the children in at the start of term, who would you prioritise?”
He said that one approach would be to keep Year 11 and Year 13 in school for face-to-face lessons, while other year groups are sent home to learn remotely.
“We feel we owe it to the young people doing GCSEs and A-levels because we already know their time is being disrupted and want to make it as normal as they can be,” he said.
It also emerged that the leader of the Government-backed remote learning platform has issued a warning that the number of children missing school is “likely to grow over the winter”.
Matthew Hood, the principal of the Oak National Academy, has written to the internet giant BT to demand that the site’s “zero-rating” is restored so that pupils stuck at home next term will be able to access it free of charge. BT has said it was “urgently reviewing” whether this could be done.
Family groups have warned that if entire year groups are told to learn remotely, this would make life impossible for working parents and could hamper the country’s economic recovery by forcing them to stay at home to supervise their children.
Molly Kingsley, co-founder of the parent campaign group UsForThem, said the Government’s plan to encourage ex-teachers back to the classroom was “an acknowledgement that this is a very serious situation”.
But she added that the campaign was “meaningless” unless there was “political weight” behind it. “You would have to run it like a military operation, backed up by operational and financial resources. Just sending out a tweet won’t cut it.”
Robert Halfon, the Tory chairman of the education select committee, said: “I’m concerned that even if the Government says they want to keep schools open, schools will continue to send hundreds of thousands of children home.
"If schools are closing or sending lots of children home, they should set up task forces with the schools to work with them to keep them open. They can’t just say this – they’ve got to mean it.”
Caroline Ansell, the Conservative MP for Eastbourne, and Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former head of Ofsted, are among those taking part in the Government’s scheme to encourage ex-teachers back to the classroom.
The drive is part of wider concerns within the Government about the impact of the surge in infections triggered by the omicron variant among critical workers in key industries.
To help ease pressure on the workforce, the required period of self-isolation after testing positive for Covid was cut from 10 days to seven if the person shows a negative lateral flow test result.
The impact of the omicron surge on critical national infrastructure, including areas such as food supplies and transport, is being closely monitored by ministers.
A DfE spokesperson said: “We know children and young people want to be in the classroom and it is the very best place for their education and wellbeing, which is why protecting face-to-face education continues to be an absolute priority.”