School disruption could continue until Easter, the Government has admitted as it extends funding for a virtual academy.
The Oak National Academy – which was up last year and has since delivered millions of online lessons – has been granted £2.1 million of taxpayer funding to remain open for another two terms.
The move will be seen as a tacit acknowledgement that ministers anticipate further turmoil to children’s education during next academic year.
In a further sign that the Government is preparing for more classroom disruption, plans are now underway to transfer the ownership of Oak National Academy’s brand, platform and associated intellectual property to the Department for Education (DfE).
The Reach Foundation, an education charity which currently runs the virtual school, has been asked by the DfE to "consult with its partners and stakeholders" about the change in ownership "as part of securing its long term future".
The Oak National Academy was launched in April 2020 by a group of teachers who wanted to create high quality online lessons and resources for children during the first lockdown.
Academy offered £5m to expand across whole curriculum and continue throughout summer
It was initially backed by £500,000 of government funding and has subsequently received a further £5 million from DfE to expand so that it now includes online lessons for the entire school curriculum, and to continue over the summer holidays.
Over a million pupils are now off school as a result of Covid, up from 839,700 the previous week, and a record high since pupils returned to the classroom in March.
This includes 774,000 children who have been forced to self-isolate because of a case at school, representing a 32 per cent increase in the space of a week, according to the latest official data.
Figures published earlier this week by the DfE show that 14.3 per cent of all children in England were not at school last Thursday due to a Covid-related reason, up from 11.2 per cent the week before.
On June 28, The Telegraph launched a campaign calling on ministers to put children first as the country recovers from its Covid lockdowns, with action to bring an end to the disruption in schools.
The Children’s Commissioner, the Archbishop of York and dozens of prominent Tory MPs have backed the campaign, urging the Government to axe the bubbles policy in schools.
The bubbles approach has led to whole year groups being sent home to self-isolate for 10 days because one of their classmates tested positive.
Ministers had originally indicated that they intended to scrap it in time for the new academic year in September. But after intense pressure, they brought this forward to July 19 so children can attend summer camps and activities without the restrictions in place.
From September, children should only be off school if they have tested positive or if they display Covid symptoms and are awaiting a test result.
But detailed guidance published by the DfE said that it "may become necessary to reintroduce bubbles" for a temporary period if there is a Covid outbreak.
‘Oak National Academy was one of the great success stories of the pandemic’
Schools are told to contact their local public health teams to report a potential outbreak if they have several confirmed cases within 14 days.
The guidance says any decision to recommend the reintroduction of bubbles should not be taken lightly and should "take account of the detrimental impact they can have on the delivery of education".
A student who has Covid symptoms can be refused entry to school if a headteacher believes that is "necessary" to protect other pupils and staff.
Nick Gibb, the schools minister, said: "From being set up by a small group of teachers in under two weeks, Oak National Academy has become one of the great success stories as we tackle the pandemic.
"Oak has helped millions of children and teachers while schools were closed to most pupils, ensuring high-quality education could continue.
"The impact Oak has made and the good it has done for the sector and children is immeasurable, and we will now look for the best way to harness that for the future."