December 2021. Omicron variant and its impact on education

Wednesday December 15th, 2021

Welcome to your last newsletter of the year. In this issue, we’ll provide some practical advice on less-than-festive developments with regards to Covid-19, and also on the fraudulent ‘phishing’ emails appearing to come from schools’ email accounts. We’ll celebrate ‘the most wonderful time of the year’ with our 12 Days of Christmas diary, and briefly look ahead to next year – as far ahead as summer in fact!

Omicron variant and its impact on education

The discovery, in November, of the new omicron variant has created concern and uncertainty as we approach Christmas. Omicron has more than 30 mutations on its ‘spike protein’ (the key used by the virus to unlock our body’s cells) – twice as many as the delta variant had in relation to its predecessors. Its rapid spread around the UK led the UK Prime Minister to move to ‘plan B’, mandating, among other measures, the use of face masks again in indoor spaces such as shops and public transport.

Another measure re-introduced to try and slow the spread of the new strain is that all close contacts of anyone who has tested positive for the omicron variant must isolate for 10 days regardless of their vaccination status – a return to the rule that the UK government had relaxed in mid-August.

And now all travellers returning to the UK must take a PCR test, purchased from a private provider (i.e. not a free NHS test), on or before day two in the UK, and must self isolate until they have received a negative test result.

Keep an eye on this for UK travel updates here.

At the time of writing, the UK Government is urging schools and universities to remain open, and continue with face-to-face teaching. But staff sickness (not necessarily Covid-related) and a shortage of supply teachers in the state sector has meant that some schools have already resorted to remote learning for the rest of the term.

Despite the UK Government’s message, the University and College Union (UCU) has urged higher and further education establishments to move from face-to-face to online learning to protect students ahead of Christmas.

Amid a rapid rise in Covid-19 cases on campus (for example, the University of Oxford reported a 33% rise in cases during the first week in December, many of which were confirmed as omicron) Imperial College London is among the institutions who have already asked staff to move their teaching online for the final days of term.

The flexibility and other benefits that come with hybrid learning (a mix of remote and in-person teaching) suggest this ability to switch quickly between the two modes of education may actually be a positive. We’ll look at that again in more detail in our January issue.

Phishing emails 

Phishing, according to internet security specialists Norton, is a cybercrime in which scammers try to persuade you to part with sensitive information or data by disguising themselves as a trustworthy source. What that means is that emails appear to have come from a sender that you recognise and trust, and from whom you would expect to receive communications by email.

Sometimes, you can double check the validity of an email by looking closely at the sender’s email domain. In some cases, the email account or domain name will bear no resemblance to the organisation they’re claiming to be. Those examples are easy to spot and avoid. But in others, there might only be the tiniest discrepancy, for example, Woldinghan school instead of Woldingham. Very often, the content of the email will be highly credible and the tone polite, professional and very persuasive.

Sadly, a large number of schools have reported being targeted by phishing, sometimes relating to discounts in fees. Unfortunately, it seems this type of attack is becoming more prevalent across the independent school sector. Woldigham is just one such example; Oundle has experienced something similar recently. In that case, current and prospective parents were targeted with emails offering a link to claim a refund. As a precautionary measure, the school emailed all parents to confirm they would never ask recipients to click on a link to claim a refund. The problem is that links embedded in phishing emails will almost certainly take you to a fake web page, set up by the scammers, to access your bank details and other sensitive, personal information.

But naturally, the trouble with any form of email scamming is that emails sent in response by the official source, designed to reassure recipients, can easily be misconstrued because of their subject matter. (Why trust the follow-up email that claims the previous email was a scam? You can see how the thought process goes…) If you’re ever in doubt, especially with regards to emails that contain links, then it’s best to contact the school office to check and confirm. A related scam, and not one that has been flagged to us by any schools at present, is where cyber criminals intercept an email, change account details to their own, then ‘release’ the message to its intended recipient. If I’m ever given the account details of a company over email in order to make an online payment to them, I’ll always ring to confirm those account details (and I’ll make sure I locate their phone number from a source that isn’t the email I received with their account details!)

Something more Christmassy!

Apologies for those most un-festive tidings regarding cyber crime. Unfortunately, the people who commit those crimes often favour busy periods, such as the run-up to Christmas, when everyone is busy. Their ideal target is a recipient who is distracted by their to-do list during the season of peace and goodwill to all. We’re arguably more trusting – or less mistrustful anyway – as the festive season approaches!

Now for something more appropriately full of festive cheer – our 12 days of Christmas diary. Suggestions, tips and ideas for a fun, healthy, productive festive period.

Day 0 (Christmas Eve)

Create a Christmas Eve box for all the family, full of festive pyjamas for all the family (or just the kids!) and cosy, novelty socks or slippers.

Day 1 (Christmas Day)
Watch the Queen’s speech. The royal Christmas message, broadcast to the nation, has been a tradition in the UK since 1932. Queen Elizabeth II has read it since 1952, with her first televised speech just five years later, in 1957.

Day 2 (Boxing Day)

Watch The Nutcracker. Enjoy beautiful ballet set to Tchaikovsky’s composition with on-demand streaming of a live performance (Google The Nutcracker ballet for options); try Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston’s 2018 film ‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms’, or CBeebies’ brilliant stage version for younger viewers.

Days 3 and 4
Monday 27th and Tuesday 28th December are bonus bank holidays in the UK, because Christmas Day and Boxing Day fall at the weekend. Make the most of any extra time off with some fresh air as a family. Check out the BBC’s latest winter walks series on BBC 4 for inspiration.

Day 5

Play board games. Whether you opt for the old classics or any new ones you may have found under the tree, board games bring people together! Or check out best board games and top 10 board games for ideas on the best board game bargains to pick up in the sales.

Day 6

Visit an internationally renowned art gallery from the comfort of your own home. Take your pick of virtual gallery tours here.

Day 7 (New Year’s Eve)

Do a treasure hunt. Write cryptic, (rhyming?) clues that lead people on a trail between various objects in different rooms around your house, culminating in a prize.

Day 8 (New Year’s Day)

De-clutter! It’s the perfect day to consider streamlining your wardrobe or your kitchen cupboards. Charity shops rely on your donations of pre-loved items you no longer need to keep supporting their beneficiaries.

Day 9

Back to the books! It might be a Sunday, but school is calling. If diving straight back into your set texts is too much, think about other ways you could gain a deeper understanding of your subject. Podcasts? Audiobooks? Box sets? I love ‘Dickensian’ for a different perspective on Dickens’ classics. Iconic characters’ lives intertwine in an audacious ‘prequel’ that will make you think.

Day 10

Another bonus bank holiday in the UK! A good time to work on your UCAS application if you’re off to university in the autumn? Deadline for most undergraduate courses is 26th January.

Day 11

Sort out your stationery! Whether you go back to school later this week or next, now’s a good time to get everything ready. Notebooks, files, pens. Those amazing multi-coloured highlighters. New diary, etc…

Day 12

Today’s the day, according to tradition, that your Christmas decorations should come down (if they haven’t already). It’s also the perfect day to watch Shakespeare’s play by the same name: ‘Twelfth Night’. There are plenty of adaptations to choose from. The first film version, a silent production made in 1910; a 1933 film (essentially a recording of a theatrical dress rehearsal) directed by Orson Welles; Trevor Nunn’s fabulous 1996 film set in the Victorian era; a 2006 modernised version called ‘She’s the Man’ set in an American high school; and the 2018 adaption by Adam Smethurst.

Summer schools 

It may seem the wrong season to be thinking about the long summer holidays stretching up to September, but why not get a head start and secure a place now? Summer schools offer a great mix of fun and educational activities, and they’re an ideal way for overseas students to integrate into UK life and practise their spoken English. We work with dozens of summer course providers in the UK and Europe, one example is a company who provides a summer school at Westonbirt School, a beautiful Grade 1 listed country house in the pretty Cotswolds located on a 100-hectare site, including its own golf course and lake.

Dates run from 10th July 2022 to 7th August for children aged 10-16, accommodating up to 80 international students and 32 UK students. It’s worth booking early, because places are limited to around 16 places per language / nationality every week, with a 12:1 student to teacher ratio in English lessons. Staying with host students, children will get to practise what they learn in supportive, relaxed home environments after busy days, excursions and evening activities.

Children can choose from high quality coaching academies in horse riding, polo, golf, tennis and performing arts, or opt for a multi-activity programme. Alongside learning new skills, they’ll benefit from three exciting day trips each week, to places like London, Oxford, Bath and the world-famous Harry Potter Studios.

If you’d like to know more about Westonbirt’s summer school, do get in touch. We work with a number of schools and organisations who offer summer schools, and we’ll keep you posted on the various options available in next year’s updates.

In the meantime, all that remains for us to do is to wish you glad tidings for the festive season, a very merry Christmas and a happy, healthy, prosperous New Year to all.