Covid: Staff absence up by 20% as term draws to a close

More than 230,000 pupils were off due to Covid on December 9

More than 230,000 pupils were off due to Covid on December 9

14 Dec 2021, 16:00

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The number of pupils absent from school because of Covid has increased by 13 per cent in the past fortnight, while staff absences are up by a fifth.

Attendance survey data from the Department for Education today estimates that 236,000 state-school pupils, 2.9 per cent of the total population, were absent due to Covid-related reasons on Thursday.

This is up from 208,000, 2.6 per cent, on November 25. While the figures show the level of disruption has increased – the rising rate of absences has tapered after a 60 per cent rise the previous fortnight.

Absences are creeping towards the peak Covid absence recorded on October 21 – where 248,000 pupils were off in the run up to half-term.

Of those absent due to Covid last week, 109,000 pupils, or 1.3 per cent, were off with a confirmed case of the virus, up by 3,000 from the two weeks before.

The number of pupils absent with a suspected case of Covid has increased from 79,000 to 91,000.

Overall school attendance dropped from 89.3 per cent to 88.9 per cent in the two weeks leading to Thursday.

In primary schools this represented a drop from 91.1 per cent to 90.7 per cent, while 87.3 per cent of pupils attended secondaries, down by just 0.2 per cent.

Concerns figures ‘already out of date’

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, raised concerns the data is “already out of date and actually underestimates the scale of the issue schools are currently dealing with”.

Paul Whiteman
Paul Whiteman

“Over the last few days we have heard from our members that there has been a significant jump in Covid cases in schools, amongst both staff and pupils, as the new variant has started to spread. Some have told us that this has been the hardest term of the whole pandemic.”

The number of pupils absent as a result of school closures actually tripled in the last fortnight to 3,000 on Thursday. However this still only represents less than 0.1 per cent of all pupils on roll.

There have also been more reports of schools switching to remote learning due to rising cases.

Sybil Andrews Academy and Abbots Green Academy, both in Bury St Edmunds, are educating pupils remotely this week after three suspected Omicron cases.

The Daily Telegraph has also reported The Phoenix Collegiate, in West Bromwich, has closed until January after a confirmed Omicron case.

School attendance data was previously released weekly, but switched to every two weeks in September. It provides an overview of cases in England, but does not break down by individual regions.

Natalie Perera, chief executive of the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said this means figures miss the “highly localised picture and the huge differences from school-to-school”.

“Some schools will have been able to continue as normal, while others will have already switched to remote learning.”

Analysis from FFT Education Datalab earlier this year suggested pupils in parts of northern England were more than three times as likely to miss classes while they self-isolate as their peers in London.

Primary staff more likely to be off than secondary

Meanwhile, staff absence is also creeping up.

DfE estimates that 2.4 per cent of teachers and school leaders were absent from open schools on Thursday, up from 2 per cent two weeks prior.

This represents a rise of 20 per cent in the last fortnight.

Primary teachers were more likely to be absent due to Covid (2.7 per cent) than in secondary (2 per cent).

However the biggest leap was seen in alternative provision – with 3.5 per cent of teachers and leaders in those settings absent due to Covid, up from 1.4 per cent previously.

How does it compare to last year?

Schools appear to be faring better than at the same point last year, when a national lockdown and a switch to remote learning for most pupils was just weeks away.

On December 10, 2020, 99.2 per cent of schools were open compared with 99.9 per cent this year.

Attendance sat at 84.6 per cent – around four percentage points lower than the current 88.9 per cent.

Absence rates were also around three times higher with an estimated 694,000 pupils off because of Covid – last year all Covid close contacts were expected to self-isolate, where as only Omicron close contacts were expected to self-isolate in the weeks leading to December 9.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the forthcoming Christmas holidays will “at least provide a firebreak but there can be little doubt that the spring term will be challenging”.

“We would appeal to the government to back them up with more support, particularly in terms of Covid testing, ventilation, and more assistance with the financial cost of supply cover, and to communicate any new plans and measures in connection with the Omicron variant promptly and clearly.”

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