Fact check: Are school staff at greater risk from Covid-19?

Covid-19 variant

There have been conflicting statements this week on whether teachers are more likely to catch Covid-19.

Dr Jenny Harries, the government’s deputy chief medical officer, told MPs there was “no evidenced increased risk” for education staff, but admitted there was still “uncertainty” about the role schools played in transmission of the virus.

However, a National Education Union (NEU) analysis of government attendance figures found infection rates among school staff were “much higher” than in the general population.

Who is right? Schools Week investigates…


How the NEU’s analysis works and what it found

The Department for Education’s weekly figures show the proportion of teachers and school leaders absent with a confirmed case of Covid reached about 1 per cent on December 17. For teaching assistants and other staff, it was about 1.1 per cent, with higher rates in special schools.

So how do you compare this to the cases per 100,000 figure that the government uses to show the infection rate among the public?

The NEU took the proportion of staff absences due to a confirmed Covid diagnosis and divided it by two. This was to reflect that until mid-December, confirmed cases had to self-isolate for two weeks.

It then multiplied that figure by 1,000 to generate a rate per 100,000 people, enabling a comparison between teacher Covid rates and national infection rates.

The analysis estimated that on average, between October 12 (when staff absence data started to be collected) and the end of term on December 17, the rate of Covid infection was 1.9 times higher among primary and secondary teachers than the general population.

Source NEU

It was two times higher among special school teachers.

For teaching assistants and other staff, rates were three times higher in primary schools and almost seven times higher in special schools.

Dr Mary Bousted, the union’s joint general secretary, said the “shocking figures” raised “further very serious questions” about the government’s handling of coronavirus in schools.


Researchers urge caution, but figures suggest more risk

Do the figures stack up?

Luke Sibieta, a research fellow at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Education Policy Institute, said he would “urge a bit of caution”.

“They are comparing two different sources of data: a survey of schools and national testing data amongst the population. These aren’t fully comparable.”

However, he said that “on any given day last term”, between 0.5 and 1 per cent of teachers and other staff were absent because of confirmed coronavirus.

“That is very clearly on the high side,” he said.

Research published by the EPI this week found that absence rates for teachers with Covid-19 were six times higher than pupils in primary schools, and up to three times higher in secondary schools.

The research also found that absence rates of teachers with a confirmed case “ranged significantly” across the country – from 2 to 3 per cent of secondary teachers in Bury, Hartlepool, Thurrock, Calderdale, Blackburn and Salford to almost none on the Isle of Wight in Herefordshire. There was “far less local variation” in pupil absences.

Dave Thomson, from FFT Education Datalab, said it would have been better for the NEU to have compared the data to rates among the working-age population.

For example, his analysis of case data by age shows the rate among 20 to 64-year-olds stood at 385.8 per 100,000 on December 17, compared to 306.2 among all age groups.

However, even compared to the working-age population, the NEU estimated rates are still higher, apart from secondary teaching assistants and other staff .

Source NEU

Further research published by Datalab found “very similar” rates of teacher absence across the two school phases, with primary slightly higher, despite an insistence by the government that younger pupils are less likely to transmit the virus.

The research also found that the rates varied “very little” over half term, bucking a national trend in overall infection rates for working age people.


Calls for further investigations

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said on Thursday that the NEU was “not comparing like with like”.

The government’s conclusion of no further risk is based on data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) that showed “no evidence of difference in the rates of teachers/education workers testing positive…compared to key workers and other professions”.

But the most recent report from the government’s children’s task and finish group on December 17 points to ONS data between September 2 and October 16 – before the more contagious variant of the virus.

Government attendance figures show that on December 17, the proportion of teachers isolating due to potential contact with a confirmed case in school was twice that of the proportion of teachers isolating due to contact outside school, 2.1 per cent compared with 1 per cent.

Bousted wants to know what investigations the DfE has done. She also questions why ministers “repeatedly” told school staff there was “no reason for concern” and why it took so long to release staff absence data.

A DfE spokesperson said SAGE’s independent scientific advisers have “repeatedly said there is no evidence that teachers are at higher risk of infection than those working in other sectors”.

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  1. The thing with “evidence”. Is that if the study has not been done, then it is possible to declare that there is no evidence. It would however stand to reason that teachers are definitley exposed to a higher risk to due the intersecting combined risk factors of each individual faculty sending a child in. Not only that, but so are the parents of children being sent into school. It’s statistics and epidemiology, not political.

  2. The thing with “evidence”, is that if the study has not been done, then it is possible to declare that there is no evidence. It would however stand to reason that teachers are definitley exposed to a higher risk due to the intersecting combined risk factors of each individual family sending a child in. Not only that, but so are the parents of children being sent into school. It’s statistics and epidemiology, not political.

  3. Lorraine Smith

    I’m 61 years old ,I’m asthmatic. I work in a pre school we chang nappies we are sneezed and coughed on, the children dont know any different. But were not allowed to wear mask. I dont sleep very well my partner is diabetic every day I go to work I worry I will bring it home and kill him and probably me. This is how I feel. There is a petition ongoing at the minute with over 102 thousand signatures to close all nurserys for the safety of staff.

  4. Peter Endersby

    The risk is higher as children can spread this new variant of the virus more easily and the new variant is more contagious, I don’t understand why we need to wait for figures to demonstrate this as staff are already at greater risk. There also more children at school during this lockdown which compounds the risk. There is no genuine strategy to keep staff safe with this hew variant which is surprising for such a risk averse sector. Education and the DfE in particular has been very cavalier in its attitude towards staff. If we don’t feel safe at work why are we there, a vaccine is on the way, the job is not a matter of life or death.

  5. Dominic Wall

    Regardless of what data should be the comparator, one thing the NEU’s analysis of the ONS data highlights with 100% certainty, is the fact that support staff in special schools are seven times more likely than other school staff to contract the virus.
    This is no surprise as their work involves providing personal care up close to children every day.
    For this reason in the last ten days over twenty local authorities have classed these staff as ‘care workers’ so that they can be prioritised for vaccinations.
    This should be rolled out across the country now.

  6. James Cracknell

    Rubbish from the Government. Boris on lied on the Sunday. “Schools are safe”. The next day in the evening they are vectors of transmission again and closed.

    I watched this whilst seeing the NHS stretched, but with outstanding care on an intensive care ward. Our school where I most likely caught it from went above and beyond the guidance. However it still didn’t stop it. 10 days in intensive care…no underlying issues.

  7. I am a LSW in a FE college. I work mostly with young adults with severe barriers to learning. At the moment only a few of the 100 students who were invited in have chosen to come into college. At the moment I feel very anxious about having to come in to support small groups. I try my best to social distance, but the students don’t. A break times many of them go to the local skate park where there is no attempt to social distance and they mix with youths who are not in college. If I were saving lives by going into college I would think it was worth the risk. I actually feel that I am putting the lives of myself, the students and our families at risk. The least that could be done is to offer frontline staff the vacine.

  8. Ed Murray

    This is all just conjecture. The NEU figures are, at best, just indicative. It offers nothing to support the idea that schools are inherently more likely to transmit coronavirus than any other environment.

    And it can’t do that until it has ruled out all the variables that might affect this outcome: the socio-economic circumstances of the teachers, their personal habits, their attitude to masking and hand-washing, their social behaviour, whether they share accommodation with people who pose a risk.

    To be short, the picture the NEU paints is cloudy and can’t be used to support ANY opinion. As a ‘fact-check’, this piece seems to say that the validity of either of the two opposing facts is a matter of opinion. It seems to be coming down in favour of the poorly-designed research with its apparent subjectivity and observer-bias.