The number of children absent from school for Covid-related reasons in England has risen after the emergence of the Omicron variant, Government figures show.
The Department for Education (DfE) estimates that 2.9% of all pupils – nearly 236,000 children – were not in class for reasons connected to coronavirus on December 9.
This was up from around 208,000 children, or 2.6% of all pupils, on November 25.
The figures come amid reports that some schools and colleges have switched to remote lessons this week in the run-up to Christmas, while some parents are choosing to keep their children out of class amid concerns.
But school leaders have warned of worse attendance among pupils and staff due to Covid-19 over the last few days as the Omicron variant has spread.
The Omicron variant threatens to unleash even more difficultiesGeoff Barton, Association of School and College Leaders
Among pupils out of class for Covid-19 reasons on Thursday last week, the main reason for absence was a confirmed case of coronavirus, figures show.
Approximately 109,400 pupils in England were off for this reason, up from 105,600 on November 25, and approximately 90,900 were off with a suspected case, up from around 79,300.
About 14,000 were absent due to isolation for other reasons, up from around 12,200 on November 25.
A further 12,000 pupils were off due to attendance restrictions being in place to manage an outbreak, up from around 9,700 two weeks ago.
Around 3,000 pupils were absent as a result of school closures due to Covid-related reasons, the Government figures show.
Downing Street has said schools which had been forced to close due to Covid-19 would be helped to “reopen as soon as possible”.
Overall pupil attendance has fallen from 89.3% on November 25 to 88.9% on December 9.
The DfE has also estimated that 2.4% of teachers and school leaders were absent from schools due to Covid-19 related reasons on December 9, up from 2.0% on November 25.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “This latest increase in Covid-related absences comes as no real surprise given the current situation nationally.
“However, our concern is that this data is already out of date and actually under-estimates the scale of the issue schools are currently dealing with.
“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.”
Boris Johnson has not kept his eye on the ball, and his lack of action in ensuring schools have measures in place to keep on top of ever-increasing Covid infection rates is shockingDr Mary Bousted, National Education Union
He added: “Everyone is concerned about how this will play out over the next few weeks and the implications for January. No-one wants to see the sort of disruption to education that we experienced last winter. However, we are already seeing signs that schools are coming under increasing pressure.
“The Government needs to think very carefully about the mitigations it needs to take to keep schools open next term. Doing nothing is not a plausible or realistic option.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “The situation has clearly been deteriorating through the course of this half-term with many schools and colleges experiencing huge disruption.
“The Omicron variant threatens to unleash even more difficulties. The forthcoming Christmas holidays will at least provide a firebreak but there can be little doubt that the spring term will be challenging.”
The union is calling on the Government to back schools with more support – including Covid-19 testing, ventilation, and more assistance with the financial cost of supply cover.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “The Prime Minister’s end-of-term report makes for sorry reading.
“Boris Johnson has not kept his eye on the ball, and his lack of action in ensuring schools have measures in place to keep on top of ever-increasing Covid infection rates is shocking.”
She added that the union has been calling for additional safety mitigations in schools and colleges – such as face coverings, isolation, ventilation, staggered break times and one-way routes – to tackle cases.
“Boris Johnson must bring forward a plan to keep schools and colleges safe and to keep education going,” Dr Bousted said.
We want to make sure disruption in schools, early years settings and colleges is kept to a minimum as we tackle the Omicron variant of coronavirus.— Department for Education (@educationgovuk) December 14, 2021
We explain five ways we're protecting education during the pandemic.https://t.co/o80U19Q1gE
Two schools in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk – Sybil Andrews Academy and Abbots Green Academy – have moved to remote learning until the end of term on Friday after Covid-19 cases emerged in the schools.
Abingdon and Witney College in Oxfordshire has moved the majority of its lessons online this week as a “proactive measure” to reduce the number of people at their campuses in the run-up to Christmas.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman has said face-to-face teaching should not be abandoned as a purely “precautionary” measure.
A DfE spokeswoman said: “The classroom is the very best place for children and young people’s development, and making sure children are learning face to face continues to be a priority.
“We have taken action that will help manage the Omicron variant, including asking older students and staff to wear face coverings in communal areas and asking secondary schools to offer on-site testing at the start of the spring term.
“We strongly encourage everyone to keep testing regularly and get their booster jabs as soon as possible.”