Staff absence: Schools on Omicron alert as term begins

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

As the education secretary urges schools to prioritise face-to-face teaching, leaders warn that it will only take a small increase in staff absence to derail the beginning of the spring term.

Staff absence continues to be one of the biggest challenges facing schools as term got underway. The week began with familiar feelings of frustration about last-minute government decisions and guidance – just as we saw a year ago during the post-Christmas surge in Delta cases.

Early reports suggest that most primary schools opened on Tuesday (January 4), while secondary schools have spent the week organising on-site testing for all students before welcoming them back to class.

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) reported: "We are hearing from our members that they are finding some pupils are absent and some staff are off sick or isolating. It is not a uniform picture, but at the moment school contingency plans are being relied upon to keep the system working.”

However, the union warned: “It remains to be seen how that progresses during the rest of the week and further into the term. It only takes a small increase in staff absence to begin to cause real problems.

“The government will need to be realistic about its expectations of schools. If the priority is to keep children in school we will need innovative approaches to delivery when staffing is critically low. There is no play book for this.”

It comes as education secretary Nadhim Zahawi urged schools to prioritise face-to-face learning this term.

However, schools are on alert over staff absence levels. At the end of the autumn term, Covid-related absence among teachers and school leaders had risen to 2.4 per cent, including 1.7 per cent with a confirmed case. Covid absence among teaching assistants and other staff had reached 2.1 per cent, 1.4 per cent with confirmed cases (DfE, 2021).

At the same time, pupil absence had reached 2.9 per cent (236,000). Attendance in primary schools had dropped to 90.7 per cent and in secondaries it had fallen to 87.3 per cent (DfE, 2021).

Given the surge in Omicron cases and the expected post-Christmas rise in infections, school leaders fear the spring term will see a similar rising trend of Covid infection and absence among staff and pupils.

The government has enforced on-site testing for secondary students as they return this week and has reintroduced face masks in classrooms and teaching areas for all students in year 7 and above. The advice on masks will be reviewed on January 26.

The government is also urging vaccine uptake: 12 to 15-year-olds are encouraged to get fully vaccinated (two doses) while 16 and 17-year-olds are now eligible for boosters. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has also recommended that “children aged 5 to 11, who are in a clinical risk group or who are a household contact of someone (of any age) who is immunosuppressed, should be offered a primary course of vaccination”. This will be a third of a dose of the normal adult Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine (JCVI, 2021).

However, the last-minute nature of the school guidance updates, difficulties ordering tests, as well as the lack of financial support for schools has once again caused frustration.

Before the end-of-term break, six education unions issued a joint statement urging more support to bring down levels of infection among school staff.

The plea – from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), the National Education Union, NAHT, GMB, NASUWT, and UNISON – included asking for “improve financial support” for the costs of supply cover.

The unions reiterated their complaints that the current government workforce fund has been rendered ineffective by a “maze of eligibility criteria”.

They reminded Mr Zahawi that “last term education staff were more likely than other workers to test positive and therefore to have to self-isolate, inevitably leading to disruption of education”.

The unions also called for air cleaning units to be supplied to every school and college that needs them as well as more resources to support this week’s testing effort in secondary schools.

The statement adds: “Secondary schools have once again been left in the lurch at the beginning of the spring term by being asked to set up and staff testing stations with little support from the government.”

On air filtering, the government confirmed on Sunday (January 2) that 7,000 air-cleaning units were to be sent to schools. These “will be for areas where quick fixes to improve ventilation are not possible, such as being able to open a window”. Schools applying will need to show “sustained high Co2 readings”. Guidance has been published to help schools check eligibility and to apply (see further information). It comes on top of 1,000 such units for special schools and alternative provision settings and 350,000 Co2 monitors.

The six unions also want any school due for an Ofsted inspection this term to be allowed to defer the visit: “This will enable teachers and leaders to focus on the immediate and urgent task in hand – that of supporting their pupils and students – and remove the unnecessary pressure and distraction of unhelpful inspections at this time.”

Last term, there were complaints that schools finding themselves in crisis mode were not being granted deferrals and that Ofsted’s bar for such requests was “very high”.

Data from Ofsted (2021) shows that during the autumn term, 88 schools requested deferrals (this compared to the around 1,300 inspections that were carried out). Of those 88 requests, 23 were refused (26 per cent).

Ofsted is not inspecting secondary schools during the first week of term and the DfE said on Sunday (January 2) that Ofsted “will also encourage early years settings, schools and colleges that are significantly impacted by Covid-related staff absence to ask for their inspection to be deferred”.

In an open letter to schools this week, Mr Zahawi urged schools to prioritise face-to-face learning (DfE, 2022a).

He wrote: “I urge you to do everything in your power to protect face-to-face learning and am confident that you will of course make every endeavour to do so. I understand that a possible challenge for keeping young people in classrooms is staff absence, which is why I am continuing to call on any former teacher who can do so to come back to the classroom.

“However, if operational challenges caused by workforce shortages in your setting make delivery of face-to-face teaching impossible, I would encourage you to consider ways to implement a flexible approach to learning. Flexible delivery involves utilising all your available teaching and non-teaching workforce to maximise on-site education for as many pupils as possible while you flexibly deliver provision either on-site or remotely to some pupils.”

The DfE says it will publish case studies to help schools plan more flexible approaches to delivering face-to-face education. So far, just two have been published (see further information).

The DfE’s Covid guidance for schools has also been updated to reflect the recommendations on masks (DfE, 2022b).

Other changes include on isolation and come following updates to guidance for the public. Now, those who have a positive PCR test result will only have to isolate for seven days (instead of 10) providing they give a negative lateral flow test on days six and seven.

Geoff Barton, ASCL general secretary, said that the flurry of updates to government guidance and the additional air cleaning units “is a recognition by the government that the spring term will be extremely challenging for schools and colleges”.

He added: “The biggest problem they face is the likelihood of high levels of staff absence caused by the prevalence of the Omicron variant. While schools and colleges will do their very best to minimise the impact on pupils, as they always do, there is a possibility that this will mean that some classes and year groups have to be sent home for short periods of time to learn remotely.”

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