Rise in absence as Covid variants hit

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

As Covid infections increase in the general population, staff and pupil absences have risen sparking renewed calls for the reinstatement of free Covid testing in schools.

The government no longer publishes a break-down of its attendance data to show absences due to Covid, but school leaders say it is no coincidence that absence is up just as infections nationally rise again.

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.

Teacher absences seem to be hitting secondary schools harder than in primary (6.7% compared to 6.1%) while support staff absence seems to be more of an issue for primary schools (5.5% vs 4.6%).

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%). The secondary figures do not include year 11 and 13 students who are not in attendance due to examinations.

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.

The Office for National Statistics reports rising infections across the UK.

In England the week ending June 2 saw almost 800,000 people testing positive (1.46% of the population). This rose to 1.1 million people in the week ending June 11 (2.1% of the population), and 1.36 million in the week ending June 17 (2.5% of the population) (ONS, 2022).

Responding to the figures this week, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, described the rise in absences as “very worrying”.

He added: “These statistics no longer contain a breakdown of absence due to Covid because of the government’s ‘living with Covid’ policies. However, it is highly unlikely to be a coincidence that we are seeing absence in education settings rising at the same time as Covid infections are increasing in the general population.

“Our concern is that this is going to keep happening with wave after wave of infections causing fresh disruption in our schools and colleges. There is absolutely no government strategy to deal with this issue.”

In April, the government ended access to free tests as part of its Living with Covid strategy. The move was criticised by school leaders at the time who labelled it “reckless in the extreme”.

The current spike in infections has led to renewed calls for free testing in schools. Mr Barton added: “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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