Omicron in Schools: A Guide for Parents to the Variant

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As cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus continue to rise across the UK, schools are starting to feel the impact.

Hatch Warren Junior School in Basingstoke and Solent Infant and Junior School in Portsmouth have both identified variant cases, according to their respective boards.

Schools and local councils are now working with the UK Health Security Agency to manage cases, identifying close contacts of those infected. Close contacts should self-isolate for 10 days.

Meanwhile, all fifth grade students at Manor Community Primary School in Kent have been urged to stay home and get tested due to an Omicron case.

This follows the closure of a Scottish primary school earlier this week. Parents at Todholm Primary School in Renfrewshire have been told the school will be closed for the next five days following suspected cases of the variant.

In an email sent to parents, the Renfrewshire Council said the decision to close the school until Monday 13 December was “because of the difficulty in operating the school with reduced teaching and support staff and to maintain an appropriate level of staff for the school “.

So how is Omicron monitored in schools and what is the advice if your child’s school has a confirmed case? Should the whole promotion stay at home, should the school close or what?

How is Omicron identified?

Omicron is identified through PCR testing – and the system is the same for schools and all other settings.

Anyone with symptoms of Covid or who has been in close contact with a confirmed case of Covid should take a PCR test. These tests are then analyzed in the laboratory to identify variants of the Covid, such as the Omicron.

There are two ways to test Omicron. The first (and fastest) way to identify if the variant is Omicron is to see if the S gene cannot be detected in a sample.

While this is not 100% accurate (because other mutations also prevent PCRs from detecting an S gene), the government says it can be used as “a proxy method to track the variant.” In this case, a school (and parents) may be informed that they have a “suspected” case of Omicron among students or staff.

A more accurate way to test Omicron is to complete whole genome sequencing on the sample, but the results may take up to a week to come back.

For this reason, people are told to self-isolate if they have a “suspected” case of Omicron. You (or your child / children) should not wait until this is a “confirmed” case.

Official rules for schools

At present, the official school rules are very similar to the rest of the population.

Anyone who has been identified as a close contact of a suspected or confirmed case of the Omicron variant – regardless of vaccine status and age – will be contacted directly and should self-isolate immediately for 10 days, and invited to book a PCR test.

“Close contact” does not necessarily include a whole group of years. The government claims that close contacts are children / adults who have:

  • Has had face-to-face contact, including coughing on it or having a face-to-face conversation within a meter radius.

  • Been within a yard for a minute or more without face-to-face contact.

  • Been within 2 meters of a person for more than 15 minutes (either as a one-off contact or added over a day)

  • Traveled in the same vehicle.

If your child falls into this category, you will be notified by the local health protection team or NHS Test and Trace and details of self-isolation will be provided to you.

The government urges parents not to preventively withdraw their children from school. If they have not been identified as a close contact of an Omicron case, they should “continue to attend school normally”.

If a student in your child’s class has Covid-19 – but this is not a suspected or confirmed Omicron case – the advice is also to go to school normally.

If there is a “substantial increase in the number of positive cases in a
“Establishments” will be informed of the next steps by a local incident management team (IMT) or a director of public health. The government has made it clear on several occasions that it wants to avoid further disruption of education and school closures.

If your child is told to stay home, school should help them learn at home if they are feeling well enough to do so.

To help spot cases of Covid and limit the spread, the government continues to ask high school staff and students to take a lateral flow test twice a week. This remains “voluntary but is strongly encouraged”. Pupils of primary age in grade six and below are not invited to take tests.

Further details on Covid and schools – including details on how to apply for financial assistance to care for a child who is self-isolating – can be found on the government website.

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