Commenting on newly released attendance data for education and early years settings to 16 September, Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said:  

“1.5% of our pupils and 1% of staff were absent from school on 16 September due to Covid. The worry must be that if Covid cases rise then the level of disruption will rise. The Government has left schools with very few of the mitigations that were in place during summer term and with no replacements for them - leading to a concern that in-school transmission may increase the number of Covid cases.  

“The whole pandemic has been characterised by school and college staff doing everything they can, but Government not doing enough. This must change. 

“We welcome Nadhim Zahawi's praise for leaders, teachers and school staff who have done everything they can to make the new term a success, and we recognise that he has been left with a mess to clear up. The roll-out of CO2 monitors is proceeding slowly and they can only identify a problem. Schools with ventilation problems need air purifier systems. As we approach colder weeks, vigilance and ventilation will become ever more vital. 

“On 26 August we wrote to the Secretary of State's predecessor Gavin Williamson asking for three sets of data to be made available on a weekly basis by local authority throughout autumn term: 

  • staff and pupils absent from school because of a positive test. 
  • staff and pupils absent from school because of Covid symptoms following a test 
  • length of absence due to Covid symptoms. 

“We are yet to receive an answer. Providing these figures would allow the public to properly assess how well Covid mitigations in school are working. We must do everything we can collectively to ensure that as many young people as possible continue to learn on site and this is helped by keeping a close eye on statistics and acting on them.” 

Editor’s note 

The full text of our Joint General Secretaries’ letter to the Secretary of State for Education, 26 August:  

Dear Secretary of State,

In the light of the reduced COVID-19 mitigations in schools and colleges in place at the start of the Autumn term, we are asking you to announce how you plan to monitor and assess the educational impact of the reduced mitigations in schools across the next months and to suggest that you do look at further mitigations. 

The Government has chosen to remove most requirements for safety measures in schools and other settings, a decision which we are concerned could lead to an increase in disruption as more children miss school because they test positive or because they have long Covid symptoms as well as contribute to there being more general Covid-19 cases. 

We of course acknowledge and welcome that the situation has changed because of the successful implementation of the vaccination programme. 

However, rates of Covid-19 infection in the wider community are higher than this time last year, and the vaccine has not yet been offered to many pupils. We believe therefore that effective mitigations remain important. 

We welcome, as an initial step in the right direction, the announcement that the Government has finally heeded repeated calls from the joint unions and will be rolling out portable CO2 monitors to all state-funded schools and colleges from September 2021. Of course, carbon dioxide monitors are not a solution to the problem of poor ventilation. They will indicate a problem but then something has to be done to resolve that problem. 

We would like to draw your attention to some recent research (published this month) which in summary says that keeping all windows open is the best single mitigation to reduce virus dose. HEPA filters are not quite as effective on their own, but a combination of open windows, HEPA filters and masks is the optimum solution, reducing viral loads by more than 30 times. The report states that these combined interventions remained highly effective in the presence of a super-spreader. 

A combination of measures that has proven to be so effective (including mask-wearing) must surely be difficult to argue against when attempting to reduce the spread of the virus and minimising educational disruption. 

Notwithstanding the above, the Government decisions that have been made need to stand up to scrutiny, and the NEU believes that in order to be able to assess those decisions the DfE should collect and publish data on the number of: 

  • staff and pupils absent from school because of a positive test. 
  • staff and pupils absent from school because of Covid symptoms following a test; and 
  • length of absence due to Covid symptoms. 

We believe this data would be relatively easy to collect, owing to the prevalence of electronic attendance records, and would help to develop a detailed picture of attendance in different parts of the country due to Covid infection rates. 

We hope you will give this matter your detailed consideration. 

We look forward to hearing from you. 
Yours sincerely 

KEVIN COURTNEY Joint General Secretary National Education Union  

MARY BOUSTED Joint General Secretary National Education Union