A Government-backed virtual school has seen a rise in pupils using online lessons this term as the Omicron variant threatens disruption to education.
Oak National Academy, which provides free learning resources and online lessons, said its weekly user figure last week was 340,000 – the highest level since schools returned from closures in March 2021.
The weekly user figure was only 166,000 for the week starting on December 13, the academy said.
The virtual school, which began in April 2020, expects the numbers to grow as schools try to keep children learning despite Covid-related absences.
Pupils have been using Oak National Academy for remote learning while off ill or self-isolating, the virtual school said, but schools have also used the online resources to cover lessons due to teacher absences.
A headteachers’ union has called the rise in demand for online lessons “ominous”, adding that the situation could “become worse”.
A poll by school leaders’ union NAHT, carried out last week, found 36% of school leaders had more than 10% of their total staff absent on the first day of term due to Covid-19.
Around four percent of school leaders had to send some classes or groups home, according to the survey.
A separate poll by NASUWT teaching union suggests that nearly one in four teachers say staff absences due to Covid-19 are having a major impact on their schools.
The Department for Education (DfE) is due to release its pupil and staff attendance figures for the start of term on Tuesday.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “It is ominous if we are already seeing an increase in the number of teachers and pupils using online lessons because it suggests that there are a lot of children having to remain at home and learn remotely at a very early stage in the term.
“While we will have to wait to see the Government statistics on Tuesday to understand the scale of this, it does suggest that many children are absent with Covid-19 and that schools are then having to provide them with remote learning.
“This is extremely demanding at a time when many schools are also likely to be facing high levels of staff absence because of Covid-19, and unfortunately the situation may well become worse before it becomes better because of the very high levels of infection in the general population.”
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, said: “With staff absences of more than 10% for many schools, according to NAHT’s own data from the start of term, schools are doing a brilliant job to keep things going – but it is very far from business as usual.
“The rise in the use of Oak online lessons reflects that, with some schools turning to pre-prepared lessons that cover staff can easily deliver, in a format that students at home can also access.”
He told BBC’s Sunday Morning show staff absence levels were around 8.5% last week but “will increase, no doubt, because now schools are back we’re going to see an increase in infection rates”.
Mr Zahawi said he was making contingency plans for rising rates of staff being off, saying some schools have had up to 40% of staff absent.
Last month, he called on former teachers to return to the classroom to tackle staff shortages.
Teach First said more than 100 of their alumni – who trained to become teachers through their programme but now work outside the profession – have expressed an interest in a temporary return to the classroom.
But the total number of former teachers who have returned to teaching this month following the Government’s campaign remains unclear.
Oak National Academy data suggests the highest increase in engagement since last term is in Leicester and Luton, as well as in Lancashire and Cheshire.
In London, where the Omicron variant first hit, the number of users has plateaued.
Matt Hood, principal of Oak National Academy, said: “The best place for a child to learn is in school with their teachers and classmates, and schools are doing all in their power to ensure they can attend safely.
“The sharp increase in users of our online classroom shows learning moves smoothly online when pupils cannot be in class or their teachers are off.
“Pupils and parents are now used to this approach, and teachers are becoming highly skilled in the different methods of online learning.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “Schools across the country reopened last week and staff are working tirelessly to ensure classrooms are safe for face-to-face learning, and despite the challenges in the first week of term, millions of pupils have returned to be with their friends and teachers.
“To help keep pupils in classrooms, we are helping schools conduct mass testing, bringing in supply staff and increasing ventilation support with CO2 monitors and air purifiers.
“We have invested over £520 million to support remote education during the pandemic, and are providing 1.85 million devices to schools, colleges and LAs to support disadvantaged children and young people who need to learn remotely.”