Worsening Covid situation sparks plea over use of rota systems

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

The Covid-19 situation in secondary schools has “worsened again very quickly” following the brief half-term respite.

It has led to renewed calls for the government to allow schools to operate rota systems, something that the full re-opening guidance currently forbids (DfE, 2020a).

It comes as the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) has confirmed that Covid-19 “prevalence has risen significantly” among school children since the start of term.

Specifically, we have seen “earlier increases and higher prevalence” of infection in secondary-aged students – although SAGE also concludes that the link to school re-opening is “unproven and difficult to establish”.

At the same time, SAGE says that data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for September to mid-October shows “no difference in the positivity rates” of pre-school, primary and secondary school teachers and staff, relative to other workers of similar age.

The National Association of Head Teachers welcomed this statement as “encouraging” but said that it was still incumbent on the government to protect staff, suggesting that routine testing and priority access to flu jabs would be a good first step.

The latest official figures show that the percentage of children attending state schools has fallen dramatically and now stands at 86.5 per cent as of November 12 – down from 89.3 per cent the week previously (DfE, 2020b).

As ever, the fall is being driven by secondary students. Primary schools reported 90 per cent attendance on November 12 (down from 92 per cent the week before), while secondary schools reported 83 per cent attendance (down from 87 per cent).

Furthermore, there has been a notable increase in the number of schools reporting one or more pupils self-isolating. On November 12, 64 per cent of secondary schools had pupils self-isolating (up from 38 per cent the week before) compared to 22 per cent of primary schools (up from 11 per cent).

It means that more than 600,000 pupils did not attend school for coronavirus-related reasons and one in six secondary pupils were not in school last week.

The news comes as a paper published by SAGE (2020) reports that infection rates among school-age children have continued to grow since schools re-opened for all pupils. This has been driven by “earlier increases and higher prevalence” of infection in secondary-aged students in years 7 to 11 and those aged 16 and 17.

It comes on top of data from the ONS showing that secondary-age pupils now have the highest rate of infection of any age group (ONS, 2020). Its analysis of November 13 states: “The highest positivity rates are seen in secondary school-aged children, older teenagers and young adults.”

Meanwhile, the SAGE report adds: “In the second wave, prevalence has risen significantly in school-age children, with the rise increasing initially among those in school year 12 (age 16/17) to age 24 and young people (e.g. secondary school age). The rising prevalence was first visible around the time that schools re-opened. While this may be indicative of a potential role for school opening, causation, including the extent to which transmission is occurring in schools, is unproven and difficult to establish.”

It adds: “Since schools re-opened in September, Public Health England indicates that there have been more than 1,000 instances where there have been two or more test-confirmed cases of Covid-19 in educational settings.

“There is no current direct evidence that transmission within schools plays a significant contributory role in driving increased rates of infection among children, but neither is there direct evidence to suggest otherwise.

“There is some evidence from contact tracing studies that pre-school and primary-aged children are less susceptible to infection than adults (low-medium confidence). The evidence is more mixed for secondary aged children and older children seem to have similar rates to adults.

“Children can transmit within households as well as in educational settings. As the prevalence of infection in children aged 12 to 16 increased between September and October, ONS analysis suggests that children aged 12 to 16 played a significantly higher role in introducing infection into households (medium confidence). The difference is less marked for younger children (medium confidence).”

The worsening situation has sparked calls from school leaders and teachers for schools to be allowed to use rota systems. Currently, the DfE’s guidance (2020a) states: “Schools should have facilitated all pupils returning full-time from the start of the autumn term, including those in school-based nurseries. Schools should not put in place rotas.” The only exception is that secondary schools in Tier 2 areas are allowed to use rota systems to cut transmission.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “It is clear that the improvement we saw following the half-term holiday was temporary and that the situation has worsened again very quickly. Disruption is widespread and is happening in an ad hoc manner because of the unpredictability of outbreaks.

“We understand the government’s desire to keep all pupils in school full-time. But when nearly two-thirds of secondaries are sending home pupils we have a chaotic rota system by default.

“Schools need to be given more latitude to move to a planned rota system if they feel that this would be less disruptive, more manageable, and in the best interests of their pupils.

“It would give them the ability to deliver direct and remote learning around smaller groups rotating between school and home in a planned manner. The current situation is unsustainable.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), echoed the call: “We put forward a 10-point plan in June with suggestions including hiring additional space and teachers to reduce class sizes. More recently we have put forward ideas to enable social distancing in schools through the use of rotas for older secondary school pupils. All these suggestions were ignored. Schools have been given inadequate advice – more often than not delivered at the last minute – and with no additional funding.”

SAGE has said this week that it will seek to “publish more evidence” about the impact of pupil bubbles and ventilation on potential infection in schools.

In a letter to the NEU, Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific advisor, confirmed that their research into infection in schools thus far has considered the use of face coverings, school transport, direct contact and social distancing but not bubbles or ventilation.

When it comes to school staff, the SAGE paper strikes a more reassuring note: “ONS data from September 2 to October 16 show no difference in the positivity rates of pre-school, primary and secondary school teachers and staff, relative to other workers of a similar age (medium confidence).”

Further comment on the SAGE paper

Paul Whiteman, general secretary, National Association of Head Teachers: “It is clear that while we are learning all the time, we are still in the relatively early stages when it comes to understanding this virus. That is particularly true when it comes to the role that schools might play in transmission.

“Government scientists have told us that, at present, there is no direct evidence that shows that children being in school is a significant cause of transmission. Clearly this remains a key question and it is essential that this continues to be monitored closely. We have also been told there is no evidence of a difference in the positivity rates of education staff compared to other key workers and professions, which appears encouraging.

“However, it is clear that pupils of all ages can transmit the virus to each other and to staff and we know that there have been a number of outbreaks in schools. We remain particularly concerned about the spread of the virus among older pupils and in secondary schools, especially given that we know that the prevalence of the virus has risen significantly since schools re-opened fully. There are also worrying signs that older pupils could be playing a role in spreading the virus amongst family members, and this must be watched very closely.

“Overall, it remains the case that all education staff are being asked to remain on the front line and it is incumbent upon the government to do more to ensure that all pupils and staff are kept safe. Routine testing and priority access to seasonal flu jabs are just two examples of how they could do this.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary, Association of School and College Leaders: “This paper finds that while Covid infection rates have increased among school-age children since September, there is no clear evidence about the extent to which schools being open may drive the rate of infection. On the other hand, there is clear evidence of the negative educational and mental health impact of children missing school.

“In our view, the balance of risks therefore strongly remains in favour of keeping schools open and this is absolutely the right priority. Schools have worked extremely hard to implement and manage Covid safety controls to minimise the risk of transmission and remain open.

“It is clear that the situation with Covid remains precarious and that the government must be ready to act if further restrictions are necessary. However, everything possible must be done to keep schools open, and to support the staff who have done such a superb job in managing this exceptionally difficult situation.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary, National Education Union: "We are pleased that SAGE has recognised the important role that schools and school-age children play in transmission of the virus. We have been concerned for some time that an erroneous belief that children do not play a significant role in the transmission of coronavirus was badly distorting policy. This is in spite of a clear and sharp trend in infection rates among secondary school pupils in particular since the start of term. The situation is untenable."

  • DfE: Guidance for full opening: schools, last updated November 5, 2020a: https://bit.ly/38tdOfd
  • DfE: Week 46: Attendance in education and early years settings during the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak, November 17, 2020b: https://bit.ly/35DM7Aw
  • ONS: Coronavirus (Covid-19) Infection Survey, UK, November 13, 2020: https://bit.ly/2INlnVv
  • SAGE: Research and analysis: Children and transmission: 4 November 2020, Children’s Task and Finish Group (for SAGE), November 13, 2020: https://bit.ly/2UApwOW


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