11 Jun Ministers warned of further disruption in English schools as Covid variant spreads
School leaders have warned against the government “sleepwalking” into further disruption to education as data showed the Delta variant was continuing to spread within schools in England, with a rapid rise in infections among secondary school pupils and further outbreaks in recent weeks.
Data from Public Health England showed there have been 149 outbreaks linked to the Delta variant since 26 April, with 136 of them coming in the four weeks up to 6 June. The figures included 50 outbreaks in the first week of June, when most schools in England were closed for the half-term holiday.
Further data modelled by the Office for National Statistics showed that students in years 7 to 11 in secondary schools had the highest infection rate of any age group, with one case in every 210, or 0.47%, on 2 June. At the start of May, the same age group’s rate was 0.10%.
School leaders have repeated calls for students aged over 12 to be vaccinated as soon as possible.
Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said the levels of transmission within schools were concerning but not yet dangerous.
“If the Delta variant is much more transmissible in children, it might raise the R number [in schools] above one, and then you would consistently start to see larger outbreaks more frequently in schools. So far, I don’t think the PHE data are convincing on that. Yes, there are outbreaks in schools but it’s a tiny fraction of them.
“It’s something to watch very closely, but I don’t think the alarm bell has rung clearly for that yet.”
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the low national figures concealed more severe regional trends.
“We are hearing from our members that more and more schools are having to close multiple classes or bubbles, particularly in areas with higher case numbers, and revert to remote learning. One school told us that though they were not officially closed, six of their seven year groups were isolating due to Covid,” Whiteman said.
“The government must be proactive to ensure that transmission in schools, particularly in relation to the new variant, is not allowed to proceed unchecked. We must not sleepwalk into further widespread disruption to education.”
On 17 May, the government watered down its guidance on the wearing of masks in secondary school classrooms, although many schools in areas with outbreaks have readopted their use.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the situation for secondary school students remained precarious.
“We really do need to be able to offer vaccines to these age groups as soon as possible both in terms of tackling wider community transmission and to minimise educational disruption,” Barton said.
“We are conscious that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation will be considering the possible rollout of vaccines for 12- to 15-year-olds and we hope this will lead to a programme being made available in due course.”
The latest school attendance figures showed one in every 50 secondary students in England was absent for Covid-related reasons during the week before the half-term break, including 4,000 confirmed Covid cases. In Bolton, more than 30% of secondary school pupils were recorded as Covid-related absences.