Teachers in plea to ministers: 'Get a grip' on Delta variant spread in schools

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Teachers are pleading with the government to “get a grip” on the spread of the Delta Covid variant in schools as figures show the extent to which localised outbreaks have affected young people.

The “troubling” picture in Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen should act as a warning to the rest of the country, the National Education Union (NEU) says.

Attendance figures for May 27 for schools in Bolton, one of the areas at the centre of the Delta variant outbreak, show that 21 per cent of primary pupils and 32 per cent of secondary pupils were absent for Covid-related reasons.

The figures in Blackburn with Darwen, another affected area, were 15 per cent Covid-related absence for primary pupils and 13 per cent for secondary pupils.

This compares to national figures showing that Covid-related absence on May 27 was running at 1.6 per cent in primaries and two per cent in secondaries (DfE, 2021).

The NEU said the extent to which schools have been hit by Covid absence in Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen was “troubling”. It is also concerned after the figures revealed that the levels of staff Covid-related absence on May 27 in Bolton were up markedly. This included 13 per cent of teachers and school leaders being off in Bolton primary schools and five per cent in secondaries (the figures for Blackburn with Darwen were eight per cent and three per cent respectively).

Kevin Courtney, the union’s joint general secretary, said: “These figures are deeply concerning for the communities concerned and also provide a warning for the rest of the country about the potential spread of Covid in schools for the rest of the academic year, and the resulting disruption to education if the government does not get a grip on the situation.

"In order to keep face-to-face learning on a sustainable footing, government must take the rising secondary school case numbers seriously. The requirement for staff and students to wear face coverings should be reinstated, and the encouragement for pupil testing must be kept up."

The NEU has joined with trade unions GMB, UNISON and Unite to call on the government to reinstate mask-wearing in schools, pointing to data from the Office for National Statistics showing that secondary school-age students now have the highest rates of Covid-19 infection of all age groups.

The data (ONS, 2021) shows that 0.5 per cent of secondary-aged students tested positive for Covid in the week ending May 29, 2021 – the highest rate of any age category.

Meanwhile, Public Health England (PHE) has said that the Delta variant B.1.617.2 – which was first identified in India – is now the dominant variant in the UK. Figures from June 3 show 12,431 cases having been registered, up by 5,472 on the week previously (PHE, 2021a).

It comes as the PHE finally published information about the spread of Delta variant in schools – after having removed information from previous publications.

On June 3, it said that there have been 97 confirmed Covid-19 outbreaks in primary and secondary schools that have had at least one variant case linked to them over the most recent four-week period (including 87 Delta cases). This represents around one in 250 schools (PHE, 2021b).

Broken down by week, the PHE data shows there were 39 outbreaks involving the Delta variant in the last week of the half-term, up from 27 the previous week and 11 the week before.

A PHE statement said: “PHE’s health protection teams continue to work with local authorities and schools to carry out surveillance of Covid-19 cases in schools to understand and reduce transmission in these settings.” (PHE, 2021b).

The latest DfE attendance figures for May 27 show that across all state schools, Covid-related pupil absence was 1.8 per cent, up from an average of one per cent since the start of the summer term (DfE, 2021).

Commenting on the latest attendance figures, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said it was a “distinct rise” and urged all school staff to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

He continued: “The national figures mask huge regional differences due to the prevalence of the Delta, or Indian, variant in some areas.

“We are hearing from our members that more and more schools are having to close multiple classes or ‘bubbles’, particularly in areas with higher case numbers, and revert to remote learning. One school told us that though they were not officially closed, six of their seven year groups were isolating due to Covid.

“The latest data from government on the transmission of the Delta variant in schools is concerning, and raises serious questions about the government’s decision to ease some safety measures in schools last month. Guidance on issues such as face coverings must be kept under constant review in light of the rapidly changing data, and there is much more the government could do on other protective measures such as ventilation too. Proactive measures will always be better than reactive ones.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, is worried: “We are clearly now seeing the impact of the Delta variant feeding through into these statistics, and this is reflected by the fact that absence is highest in areas that have been worst affected by the variant. This means that many pupils are having to self-isolate in line with Covid protocols and will be experiencing yet more disruption.

“This situation highlights the fact that the utmost caution is needed in the weeks ahead before any further easing of Covid restrictions, and the current measures must also be kept under review to see if any other actions are immediately required.”

  • DfE: Week 23: Attendance in education and early years settings during the coronavirus outbreak, June 8, 2021: https://bit.ly/3crDvAc
  • ONS: Coronavirus Infection Survey, UK, June 4, 2021: https://bit.ly/3gn3mu4
  • PHE: Research and analysis: Variants: Distribution of case data, update of June 3, 2021a: https://bit.ly/3iqA00A
  • PHE: Confirmed cases of COVID-19 variants identified in UK, June 3, 2021b: https://bit.ly/3flmWYD
  • PHE: SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern and variants under investigation in England: Technical briefing 14, June 3, 2021b: https://bit.ly/3w64MzW


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