Unions have warned that schools may soon begin sending home whole classes as a result of a rise in positive Covid cases among pupils and the shortage of supply teachers to keep lessons running.
James Bowen, director of policy at the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said the difficulties schools are facing are the most severe since the start of the pandemic, with record levels of positive cases among children and senior managers who are struggling to cope with staff absences.
“Some might get to the stage where they are really struggling to keep classes running,” Bowen told Politics Home.
“No-one wants to see any more disruption, but there’s a reality to the situation that if all the teachers go off sick and there’s no one else [to cover], you do come under enormous pressure.
“We know lots of schools struggling to keep classes open already because of the pressure on staffing.”
Entire schools closing would be unlikely, he suggested, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hire supply teachers to cover those off sick due as they are already working in other schools.
To try and reduce the number of positive cases in schools, the NAHT on behalf of their 45,000 members have asked the Department for Education to speed up the roll out of ventilation units and air purifiers designed to reduce Covid transmission in classrooms. They also want to know the results of the department’s £1.75 million schools ventilation pilot scheme held in Bradford.
Another rule change the NAHT believes could bring down Covid transmission would be to stop siblings of a Covid positive child from attending school until they have a negative test themselves. Currently the brothers or sisters of a positive case can keep going to class.
The union is not actively calling for the government to switch to its winter Plan B, which would involve the compulsory wearing of face masks in some settings and more working from home, but Bowen said “there could be a scenario in the future where greater restrictions could be necessary”.
Other unions are growing increasingly worried about how schools have coped in the first half-term of the new school year. The DFE reported that 111,000 state school pupils were absent with a confirmed case of the coronavirus on 14 October – up from 102,000 on 30 September.
Julie McCulloch, Director of Policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, confirmed there is an inability to find suitably qualified supply staff due to the level of demand because of teacher absences.
She also said that schools and colleges are still struggling to get clear advice when they have an outbreak and “feel they are, yet again, being left to manage a public health crisis with insufficient support”.
McCulloch insisted that increasing vaccination among 12-15 year-olds was essential for bringing school infections back under control, but criticized the roll-out so far.
“This has been slow to get underway in many areas and beset by logistical problems, not to mention being disrupted by the irresponsible actions of anti-vaccination protestors,” she said.
NASUWT general secretary Dr Patrick Roach, said ministers are burying their heads in the sand over rising cases.
“There is a need for [school] mitigations to be restored, particularly as we move into the winter when the virus is more likely to spread further and faster as more indoor mixing takes place in the community,” Roach said.
“Ministers must also ensure clearer communications to parents and pupils and avoid mixed messages.
“If pupils are being encouraged to wear face masks on school transport, many will be confused as to why such measures are not required when they are in school.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The protective measures in place in schools strike a balance between managing transmission risk – with enhanced ventilation, regular covid testing and vaccinations of older students and staff – and reducing disruption to education by removing the need for close contacts in bubbles to self-isolate and for face coverings to be worn in most cases.
“If there are particularly high covid case rates in schools or colleges in their local area, local directors of public health may advise they reintroduce temporary additional measures such as increased testing, but face-to-face education should be prioritized.”
The Secretaries of State for Education and Health have written a joint letter to parents across the country to encourage them to ensure their children continue testing and take up the vaccine.
Secondary students and education staff should test themselves for Covid-19 twice a week, and more frequently if they are specifically asked to do so. Pupils should attend school unless they have symptoms or a positive test result.
Current rules mean that schools can request support from public health to put other mitigations in place if five children or ten percent of pupils, students or staff, who are likely to have mixed closely, test positive for Covid-19 within a 10-day period. Close mixing is considered to be a class or sports team.
The NAHT said many schools are already cancelling assemblies and many are reporting that they have already reached the threshold of children off sick and so are having to take additional measures.