Schoolchildren returned to class on Monday in parts of Europe, as the UK government pledged to urgently send ventilation units and enough COVID-19 test kits to schools to ensure that they may also reopen later this week despite soaring infection rates in the UK.

High school students in England will also be required to wear face masks when they return to class after the Christmas break and they could also face merged classes if there is a staff shortage.

“The priority is to keep schools open,” UK Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News. “The testing, the staff support we put in place and of course the ventilation are going to make a big difference for schools this year. “

The highly transmissible variant of omicron skyrocketed the number of new daily cases in Britain over Christmas and New Years, with 137,583 infections and 73 deaths reported for England and Wales alone on Sunday, figures for Scotland and Northern Ireland to be announced after the bank holiday weekend.

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Patrick Roach, general secretary of the UK teachers’ union NASUWT, welcomed the news that more ventilation units and test kits were available, but warned on Sunday that the education sector had another problem urgent as schools prepared to reopen.

“The availability of teachers and support staff is also a key pressure point for schools this quarter, as the number of COVID cases continues to rise,” Roach said.

Zahawi addressed the issue on Monday, saying the government continues to monitor staff absences amid the pandemic. He told Sky absenteeism was around 8% last year. “If it increases further, we are looking at things like merging classes, teaching more,” he said.

Zahawi also told Sky he hoped the guidelines for high school students to wear masks in class again were not in place “for a day longer than we need.”

Children returned to school on Monday in several parts of Germany, where patchy testing and reporting during the holiday season meant the level of infection was somewhat uncertain.

In Berlin, one of the states where schools have reopened, the local education minister said daily tests for children will be carried out this week. But Astrid-Sabine Busse told RBB Inforadio that current plans are for this to be reduced to three tests per week after that.

Testing “is already an absolute routine in school, before class, and we want to keep it,” she said.

In the eastern state of Thuringia, which has recorded the highest infection rate in Germany in recent weeks, children will start the new trimester by learning at home for at least two days. From Wednesday, schools will decide for themselves whether to stick with online learning, bring children back to class, or work with a mix of the two.

Federal Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger tweeted that face-to-face education “is about equal opportunities. We must do everything to keep schools open.

In France, children resumed school on Monday after a two-week vacation that saw infections skyrocket across the country.

The Dutch interim government met on Monday to decide whether children will be allowed to return to classrooms next week after an extended vacation to three weeks amid a nationwide lockdown that is expected to continue until January 14 .

The Dutch lockdown has resulted in reduced infection rates in recent weeks, but the numbers have started to rise again with the omicron variant now dominant in the Netherlands.

AP writers Geir Moulson in Berlin and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed.

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