Hundreds of thousands of English schoolchildren self-isolating

Coronavirus cases in schools have forced hundreds of thousands of children in England to self-isolate, as education leaders warn of increased disruption from the autumn surge in cases.

Between 4 per cent and 5 per cent of state school pupils in England, or about 412,000 children, were off school as a result of coronavirus last Thursday according to figures published on Tuesday by the Department for Education.

Of that figure, 8,000 had coronavirus, 37,000 had a suspected case and up to 355,000 were self-isolating as a result of potential contact with someone who had the virus. A further 12,000 pupils attended schools that were closed for Covid-19-related reasons.

The snapshot also showed that nearly half of secondary schools were directly affected by coronavirus disruption on a single day last week, underlining the widespread impact of the pandemic on schooling. Teachers said the government had to provide more support to keep children and their families safe and ensure they were not unfairly disadvantaged by a disrupted education.

Approximately 46 per cent of secondary schools had at least one pupil isolating because of a potential coronavirus contact at school last Thursday, according to the DfE. Across all state schools the figure was 23 per cent, and 13 per cent of all schools sent home 30 or more children.

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said the figures showed “the continuing high level of disruption” schools were dealing with.

She said the government had not “lived up to its promise” in supporting schools and said leaders had done a “remarkable” job in keeping them open.

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“They haven’t received enough support from the government over this time in relation to the availability of Covid tests, access to timely public health advice, and the impact of the costs they are incurring in implementing Covid safety measures,” she said.

Since schools in England reopened at the beginning of September, the number fully open has gradually decreased, from 92 per cent at the beginning of term to 79 per cent last week.

However, because the DfE this week changed the way it records school attendance, the number of fully open schools is no longer known. The government now requires schools to report absences, rather than whether they are fully open, a method it said was more “comprehensive”.

While it does not give figures on how many schools are partly closed, the new data indicate dozens of children at affected schools are likely to be sent home at any one time.

In primary schools, the median group sent home amounted to about 12 per cent of the total number of pupils, and in secondary schools the average was 4-5 per cent. The average state secondary school now has upwards of 950 children.

In response to a growing number of coronavirus cases among secondary school pupils, the National Education Union, which represents teachers, has called for schools to close for two weeks as a “circuit breaker” to stop the spread of coronavirus.

The DfE said the number of students self-isolating was “similar to previous weeks” and said the average group size was “small compared to the total number of pupils”.

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