‘Epidemic of anxiety’: Special schools feel brunt of Omicron surge

Special schools battle higher rates of staff and pupil absence

Special schools battle higher rates of staff and pupil absence

30 Jan 2022, 5:00

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Special schools have been hit hardest as the Omicron variant rips through classrooms.

Department for Education attendance survey data this week estimated 415,000 pupils (5.1 per cent) were absent for Covid-related reasons on January 20 – up from 319,000 two weeks earlier.

Of these absent pupils, 322,000 (3.9 per cent) had a confirmed case – the highest number since records began last March and more than double the 159,000 off on January 6.

The rise has pushed overall school attendance down to 87.4 per cent, meaning one in eight pupils were off school last week.

Attendance at primaries dropped from 91 per cent on January 6 to 89.1 per cent last week, while secondary school attendance remained at 85.9 per cent.

Special schools recorded the lowest attendance, falling from 82 to 78.4 per cent.

Special schools hardest hit

Surveillance data from the UK Health Security Agency suggests special schools are disproportionately affected by Covid.

Special schools reported 100 outbreaks – five or more test-confirmed Covid cases – during the first full week back (starting Monday January 10).

Primaries recorded 123 and secondaries just 17. For context, there are nearly 17 times more primary schools and more than three times as many secondary schools as special schools.

Staff have been affected too. In special schools, 6.7 per cent of teachers and leaders were absent because of Covid, as were 6.8 per cent of support staff, up from 6.2 and 6.6 per cent respectively.

In contrast, 5.8 per cent of primary teachers and leaders and just 2.9 percent of secondary school teachers and leaders were absent because of Covid on January 20.

Dominic Wall, the headteacher of Co-op Academy Southfield in Bradford, said characteristics of special schools, such as a lack of social distancing, an inability for some pupils to conduct LFD tests and pupils “less able to wear masks”, were exacerbated by Omicron.

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Dominic Wall

“For the staff working in special schools right now there’s an epidemic of anxiety about what the level of unrecognised risk is from asymptomatic cases when we can’t test the students – that is a worry we have to live with.”

In advice, published for schools by the DfE, special school head Matt Rooney suggested asking parents not to send pupils into school if they appeared symptomatic or unwell.

Other DfE-approved advice included creating a pool of talented teaching assistants who could step in if there were teacher shortages.

But some special schools are being forced to close classes and introduce rotas.

Safety compromised with high staff absences

A school business manager for a high-needs setting in Plymouth, who wished to remain anonymous, said staff absence this term was “insane” with “around 25 per cent off almost constantly”.

The school had closed two classes as its reduced staff number meant it could not ensure the safety of pupils.

Wall said his school had a rota system in which 20 per cent of pupils learned at home each day. The school has had “50 staff off for ten days consistently, which is 37 per cent of our staff”.

“The children’s care is so complex that if we lose the wrong combination of people who have had the correct training, we can really struggle to meet the care needs of individual children,” he said.

Simon Knight, head of Frank Wise School in Oxfordshire, said the biggest challenge was ensuring safe levels of staffing.

Supply agencies were “rarely a suitable option because the staff available cannot necessarily replicate the skills, experiences and familiarity with our setting that we require”.

Almost 25 per cent of all state schools said they had more than 15 per cent of teachers and leaders absent last week, up from 18 per cent that had more than 15 per cent off on January 13 and just 8 per cent at the start of the academic year.

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