Pleas for government action grow louder as Covid absence soars

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Remember what happened a year ago? There is a palpable sense of déjà vu as teachers and school leaders issue increasing desperate pleas for government action to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 among children and young people.

The latest attendance figures – for October 21, just before the half-term break – show that 248,000 children (3.2 per cent) were absent from school in England for Covid-related reasons – up from 209,000 (2.6 per cent) a fortnight previously.

This includes 87,000 pupils with a suspected case (up from 81,000) and 127,000 pupils with a confirmed case (up from 111,000).

Staff absence also continues to rise, with 2.1 per cent of teachers and school leaders and 1.8 per cent of support staff off work for Covid reasons on October 21.

It comes after UK data from the Office for National Statistics shows that in the week ending October 22, 4.1 per cent of primary-age pupils and 9.1 per cent of secondary-age pupils had tested positive for Covid – notably higher than for any other age category (ONS, 2021).

Teaching and leadership unions are united in their calls this week for the government to act. Echoing previous pleas, they have once again called for close contact isolation rules to be changed, more urgency on improving ventilation in schools, a faster roll-out of Co2 monitors, and masks at secondary level.

The National Education Union (NEU) in particular said that failure to act “risks repeating the errors made in November last year” when government hesitation led to spikes in Covid infection throughout December and January.

The NEU’s joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said: “As we enter the winter months, government in England must adopt measures currently in place in Scotland on improved vaccination rates for the over-12s; masks in secondary schools; investments in ventilation; isolation of close contacts and increased lateral flow testing testing.

“Failure to act risks repeating the errors the government made in November last year, which resulted in the virus spreading uncontrolled through schools and the wider population, culminating in the preventable disasters of December and January.”

The latest DfE data shows that attendance is down in both primary and secondary schools. Nationally, primary school attendance was running at 90.6 per cent before half-term and for secondary schools it was down to 85.7 per cent.

The National Association of Head Teachers called in particular for changes to the guidance that allows siblings of those who have tested positive to continue to attend school.

General secretary Paul Whiteman also called for the re-opening of the workforce fund to support schools with staffing shortages.

He said: “These figures show just how bad things got at the end of last term, with both pupil and staff absence at their highest levels so far this year. As we enter the second half of the autumn term, school leaders are worried that unless the government does more, disruption is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

“A particular concern for school leaders is the on-going impact of staff absence linked to Covid. We know that schools are finding it increasingly hard to cover staff absence and in many cases they simply cannot afford the cost of so many supply teachers. At the very least the government needs to re-establish the workforce fund that it abandoned last autumn. Without this crucial support there is a real risk that schools will struggle to keep all classes open as we move into the winter months.

“We also continue to call on government to look again at its Covid guidance for schools – our members want to see changes made to close contact isolation rules so that siblings of those who have tested positive for Covid don’t continue to go into school until they have received a negative PCR test.”

And Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that pupil and staff absence was “wreaking havoc in many schools”.

He continued: “They have to juggle online and in-person learning for different groups of pupils at different times with fewer staff. It is an impossible situation.

“We hope that the half-term break will have helped to reduce transmission of the virus and reduce disruption but even if this is the case it is likely to be only temporary. The government must do more to roll-out the vaccination programme for 12 to 15-year-olds, encourage home-testing among eligible pupils, and provide funding for air ventilation systems in schools and colleges.

“We have said this repeatedly and there has been some signs of improvement in the first two of these measures, but it is frustrating how sluggish the government has been in taking action.”

  • DfE: Week 44: Attendance in education and early years settings during the coronavirus pandemic, November 2, 2021: https://bit.ly/35DM7Aw
  • ONS: Coronavirus (Covid-19) Infection Survey, UK, October 29, 2021: https://bit.ly/3EVBQPh


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