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30 June 2021updated 05 Oct 2023 8:25am

Bubble trouble: pupil Covid-19 school absences quadrupled in June

Some schools in England have closed entirely this month as rising numbers of children are sent home and fewer take regular tests.

By Anoosh Chakelian and Nicu Calcea

There has been a spike in pupils sent home from school in England due to Covid-19, according to the latest official figures.

About one in 20 pupils in English state schools, 375,000 in total, were out of school because of the virus this week. This was a rise of more than 130,000 on the previous week, with absences quadrupling during June.

The majority of these pupils (279,000) were at home because they were self-isolating due to potential contact with a positive case in school. Just 15,000 were confirmed Covid-19 cases, and 24,000 were suspected cases.

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Chart by Nicu Calcea.

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These figures arrive amid chaos in some parts of the country as children are sent home last-minute because of a positive case.

Children in schools are divided into “bubbles”. If it is impossible for a school to narrow down an infected pupil’s close contacts (as it can be in primary schools in particular, where social distancing is difficult to enforce) then entire bubbles can be sent home to self-isolate at a time (the number of children in a bubble varies from school to school).

[See also: The lost children of lockdown]

There are even instances of entire school populations being sent home. In June Chipping Campden School in Gloucestershire, a major secondary school with around 1,000 pupils, closed entirely on the advice of Public Health England, when an estimated 15 per cent of staff and 75 per cent of students were deemed “close contacts” of positive Covid-19 cases.

It has become the “greatest dread” of teachers each morning to be confronted with a positive case and have to turn away the close contacts of the pupil in question, said Graeme Dow, head teacher at Anchorsholme Academy in Blackpool, on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

He spoke of these periodic disruptions affecting children’s “education and mental well-being”, as well the burden on parents having to drop work and “provide childcare at short notice”.

In theory, children sent home from school should be able to dial into lessons and learn remotely, but the New Statesman hears from teachers how difficult it is to run a hybrid in-person and online class.

“Each confirmed Covid case has a huge knock-on effect because schools are then required by government rules to trace all close contacts and ask them to self-isolate,” says Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

“This is why the vast majority of Covid-related pupil absence is among close contacts rather than confirmed cases of the illness.”

Barton adds that the process of identifying close contacts and asking them to self-isolate is “incredibly time-consuming” and involves “yet more educational disruption” for young people. “It is clear that a different approach is needed in the autumn term but what we have heard so far from the government amounts to no more than vague aspirations and there is still no robust and coherent plan in place.”

Nick Gibb, the schools standards minister, has hinted that other methods will be used to control the spread in classrooms come September.

Daily contact testing is currently being trialled in 200 schools and colleges across England. Someone identified as a close contact is tested onsite every day for seven days, instead of self-isolating for ten days, and can keep attending school if they remain negative. Gibb suggested this could be an “effective alternative” to the self-isolation system.

Yet this pilot scheme has been controversial, mired in issues of consent and ethical questions. Just as pressing is the fear among head teachers – constantly blindsided by last-minute government demands throughout the pandemic – that they will not be given enough notice before the next school year to implement a new testing regime.

“Schools and colleges need to know the arrangements for next term and the government must ensure that there is sufficient support in place to help them deliver whatever is planned,” warns Barton. “Staff, parents and pupils deserve clarity, certainty and an end to the disruption that has taken place over the past 15 months.”

Autumn is also a long way off in terms of a child’s education. “The government’s thinking about reassessing the situation for September, there are still three weeks of this summer term to run – you can’t just write off the rest of the term. Three weeks is a long time in a young child’s life,” said Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis Community Learning, which runs 53 schools.

Cases of Covid-19, chiefly the Delta variant, are rising rapidly in the UK, and some teachers fear the situation will only worsen over the summer break, when there will be more socialising across the country – particularly if most restrictions are lifted as expected on 19 July.

[See also: How the UK lost control of Covid-19 cases again]

“Further measures may also be needed at the start of next term to prevent further disruption as a result of increased social mixing during the holidays,” says Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teachers’ union.

“A commitment to onsite testing facilities in schools could also help to address concerns about rising case numbers linked to the declining number of pupils who are undertaking regular home testing.”

According to the latest government figures for rapid asymptomatic testing in England, the number of lateral flow tests taken by secondary school students fell in the week ending 16 June to 713,457 from 751,857 tests the previous week – a 5 per cent decrease. The number of lateral flow tests conducted within secondary schools and colleges rose to over 5.7 million in the week beginning 11 March (which coincided with the return to schools), yet in the latest week (10-16 June 2021), the number of tests has decreased to 1,364,264 compared with 1,394,999 in the previous week.

As parents struggle to balance work with repeated demands to keep their children out of school for ten days with no notice, the incentive to follow through with home testing for those on low incomes is in question.

Despite a number of newspapers reporting advice this week for parents to apply for the £500 self-isolation grant if their child is sent home from school, the New Statesman has covered the persistent problems and significant gaps in self-isolation support throughout the pandemic.

The Scottish government is reviewing its approach to self-isolation for school children, and the Welsh education minister Jeremy Miles is looking at changing the system to ensure the number of pupils isolating is not “disproportionate”.

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