Covid-related pupil absence in England has hit a new record high since all students fully returned to class in March this year, with more than 830,000 children out of school last week, Government figures show.
About one in nine (11.2%) state school pupils did not attend class for Covid-19 related reasons on July 8, up from 8.5% on July 1 and 5.1% on June 24, according to Department for Education (DfE) statistics.
These include approximately 747,000 children self-isolating due to a possible contact with a Covid-19 case, 35,000 pupils with a suspected case of coronavirus and 39,000 with a confirmed case of Covid-19.
The latest figures come after Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced last week that the use of “bubbles” in schools and colleges in England will come to an end as the country moves towards easing lockdown restrictions.
Current rules say that children have to self-isolate for 10 days if another pupil in their bubble – which can be an entire year group at secondary school – tests positive for coronavirus.
But Mr Williamson has said it will be up to individual schools and colleges as to whether they scrap the bubble system on Monday ahead of the summer holidays, following the move to Step 4 of the road map.
Education union leaders have criticised the Government for simply “hoping for the best” for the autumn term, as they warned that Covid-19 case numbers could get worse in schools and colleges without action.
The latest attendance figures, which have been adjusted to exclude those year 11-13 students not expected to attend because they are off-site, show that an estimated 80.4% of state school pupils in England were in class on July 8, down from 83.4% on July 1 and 87.4% on June 24, the DfE said.
In secondary schools, only 73.6% attended class, down from 76.9% on the previous week, while 85.1% of pupils attended primary school, down from 87.8% on July 1.
The number of pupils self-isolating due to a potential contact with a Covid-19 case from inside the school rose in just one week from around 471,000 children on July 1 to 624,000 pupils on July 8.
A further 123,000 pupils were self-isolating due to a possible contact outside school, up from 90,000 the previous week.
Meanwhile, about 39,000 pupils were off after testing positive for Covid-19, up from 28,000, and 35,000 pupils were absent because they suspected they had Covid-19, up from 34,000.
About 0.3% of pupils were absent on July 8 because their school was closed due to Covid-19 related reasons, compared with 0.2% the previous week.
The Government has announced that from August 16, children in England will only need to self-isolate if they have tested positive for Covid-19.
Nick Brook, deputy general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said the attendance figures “made for grim reading” and he accused the Government of losing control of the situation.
He warned: “Simply changing the rules around self-isolation is not a proper solution.
“The Government must take urgent action to drive down case numbers amongst school-aged children and implement alternative safety measures in key areas such as ventilation.
“A policy of doing nothing and hoping for the best next term not only fails to address the problem, it risks making things worse.”
Mr Brook added: “The Government’s wider narrative around relaxation of safety measures appears to be at complete odds with the reality in schools right now.”
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “Simply hoping for the best did not prevent the Delta variant breaching our borders, and hoping for the best will not be sufficient support for school and college leaders who need the backing of Government to stay open safely and sustainably when case counts rise.
“We can all hope for the best but we must plan for something that is less than the best.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “This further large increase in Covid-related pupil absence is more evidence, if it were needed, of the crisis in schools and colleges caused directly by the rules requiring teachers to send home large numbers of children to self-isolate who do not necessarily have the virus.”
But he added: “The Government’s decision to end this disruptive policy when the autumn term begins now heralds another huge set of challenges for education settings.
“They need substantial support, both financially and practically, in setting up on-site asymptomatic testing for students when they return in September, installing high-quality air ventilation systems and in having robust outbreak management plans ready.”
A DfE spokeswoman said: “Our priority is for schools and colleges to deliver face-to-face, high quality education to all pupils as we know that being out of education causes significant harm to educational attainment, life chances, mental and physical health.
“The Government has balanced education and health considerations, and from July 19 schools will no longer need to operate a bubble system, while from August 16 pupils will not need to self-isolate should they come into contact with a positive case, in line with the position for wider society.
“We will continue to keep these measures under review, in partnership with health experts and informed by the latest scientific evidence and advice.”