It's not over: Covid 'rampaging' through our schools

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

The government may think that Covid has “disappeared from the scene”, but the illness is “rampaging” through our schools as cases nationally continue to rise.

In an update to members of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) this week, general secretary Geoff Barton reported “turbulence” and “anxiety” in schools as we approach the end of term.

It comes as the Office for National Statistics reports rising infections across the country, with more than one million additional cases being reported each week now than at the beginning of June.

The rising pupil and staff absences come after Covid infection rates in the general population have increased due to the Omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5.

In England the week ending June 24, there were an estimated 1,83 million people testing positive for Covid (3.35% of the population). This figure has risen by more than one million since June 2 and is up from 1.36 million on June 17 (ONS, 2022).

The DfE has abandoned the publication of Covid-related absence figures for school staff and students, but general absence data published last week show rises in absence that match the national increase in cases

Figures for June 23 (DfE, 2022) show that 6.5% of teachers and school leaders were off, up from 5.5% two weeks previously. Furthermore, 5.5% of teaching assistants and other staff were off, up from 5%.

It means that on June 23, 33,000 teachers and 39,000 support staff were absent from schools in England.

Overall pupil attendance, meanwhile, had fallen to 89.4% on June 23, down from 91.5% two weeks previously. Broken down by phase, pupil attendance stood at 91.4% in primary schools (down from 94%) and 86.9% in secondary schools (down from 88.5%).

Mr Barton said that calls to the ASCL members’ hotline reflected the amount of turbulence and anxiety there is in schools, saying it was a sign of “how agitated and worried” their members are.

In his update, he added: “As I said in my meeting with officials at the DfE on Friday morning, I hope no-one there thinks that Covid has gone away. It is rampaging through our schools and colleges. Someone emailed me yesterday saying that their school feels like a ‘ghost town’ – ‘18 members of staff out, we’re on our knees, Covid is on the rise, and we have got Ofsted in the offing’.

“And somebody else wrote to me: ‘Our deputies and I are just so beaten by the situation at the moment – Covid, worries about Ofsted, and all of these cases of Covid rising among so many members of staff.’

“It’s all adding to a real sense of you being put under additional pressure at the end of these long two years that you’ve gone through,” Mr Barton added.

Mr Barton reported that some schools are reintroducing face coverings and measures around distancing.

He added: “You will have to do what you need to do even though what we see is a government which frankly seems to be thinking that Covid has simply disappeared from the scene. That’s quite clearly not the case.”

The publication last week of the latest absence figures sparked renewed calls from ASCL and others for the reinstatement of free Covid testing in schools.

Speaking last week, Mr Barton said: “We are not for a moment calling for a return to a battery of restrictions but there surely needs to be some thought given to providing some free Covid testing, more financial support for supply staff cover, and looking again at issues such as ventilation ahead of the autumn term as it is abundantly clear that the virus is not going away.

“This is not only an educational issue but a health one too as it is clear that staff and students are catching the virus repeatedly with potential harm to their welfare.”

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