Further confirmed cases of the new Omicron Covid variant in the UK could cause disruption to schools this winter.
Face masks rules are already being tightened in a bid to minimise the spread, with the government issuing new guidance on Sunday.
Ministers have so far resisted enforcing the winter plan B to tackle coronavirus, as it is hoped that tougher restrictions on mask wearing and testing for travel abroad will keep cases under control.
But what rules have been announced for schools? Here’s everything you need to know.
Could schools close early for Christmas?
Schools could reportedly be told to break up for Christmas earlier this year amid growing concerns the Omicron variant could lead to a spike in infections.
Thousands of pupils have already been asked to swap the classroom for remote learning following a rise in positive cases, the Mirror reports.
It is also feared that infections among staff are also increasing, meaning schools could be forced to act soon to prevent further outbreaks.
However, the Department for Education (DfE) has insisted that sending large groups of pupils home should only be done as a “last resort”.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “The news of a new variant – the so-called Omicron variant – will have understandably caused concern for people across our country, including our teachers, wider education and childcare staff, parents, pupils and students.
“We are already taking targeted and proportionate action as a precaution while we find out more information about the new variant.
“As we do so, we will continue to prioritise children’s and young people’s education and wellbeing, making sure education and childcare settings are as safe as possible and children continue to benefit from classroom teaching.
“We are working with education and childcare settings to enhance safety measures where needed, including introducing isolation for 10 days for close contacts of suspected Omicron cases.”
While early closures for Christmas have not been confirmed, new guidance on face masks has been issued to schools to help minimise the risk of infections.
The DfE has said that face coverings should be worn in all communal areas of schools and colleges in England from Monday (29 November), with the measure to be reviewed again in three weeks.
An email update from the DfE to education and childcare providers said: “Face coverings should be worn in communal areas in all settings by staff, visitors and pupils or students in Year 7 and above, unless they are exempt.
“Pupils or students (in Year 7 or above) should continue to wear face coverings on public and dedicated school transport, unless they are exempt.”
What are the rules on testing?
Secondary schools in England have been told to test pupils on-site in January following the Christmas break.
In an email to schools on Friday, 26 November, the DfE said testing secondary school pupils once they return “will help reduce transmission after a period of social mixing” over the holidays.
The DfE has told secondary schools to order sufficient testing kits by Tuesday, 30 November, to ensure all pupils can take a rapid lateral flow test on-site when they return.
Secondary schools have also been asked to order home testing kits so pupils can continue to test.
An email sent to school leaders said: “We would like all secondary schools to prepare to test their pupils once on-site on return in January.
“We understand that this is a significant additional ask but testing continues to play a vital role in keeping Covid-19 out of schools.
“Testing all pupils in school boosts testing participation and will help reduce transmission after a period of social mixing over the school holidays.
“Tests, PPE and funding to support your workforce will be provided as before. After this test on return, pupils should continue to test in line with government guidelines.”