School leaders are questioning whether the number of pupils attending schools during lockdown should be capped.
With Department for Education data showing an increase in the number of children in school, reportedly five times higher than during the first lockdown last year, there are concerns that it could harm efforts to tackle infection rates.
The figures released yesterday show that approximately 15 per cent of all pupils on roll in state-funded schools were in attendance on 28 January – up from 14 per cent in the previous two weeks.
But in some schools the figures are much higher, with a survey by the NAHT school leaders’ union suggesting that up to 2,000 schools in England have had over 40 per cent of pupils attending since the start of lockdown.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says the rise in demand for school places amid the pandemic is ‘worrying’.
He said: “Schools are being placed in the very difficult position of much higher demand than in the first lockdown and no guidance from the government about how many children should be in school at any one time.
“Many schools are having to juggle in-school teaching for quite large numbers of pupils with remote education for everyone else.
“We have asked the government for guidance over whether numbers should be capped, but we have not had a satisfactory response.
“It is very difficult to square this with the government’s message to the public to stay home, protect the NHS, and save lives.”
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Peter Middleman is the north west’s regional secretary for the NEU, the UK’s largest education union, and says the problem is partly due to the government allowing more people to access the school places.
He said: “Essentially, we understand the pressures on parents, but the government decision to widen the definitions of ‘key worker’ and ‘vulnerable’ are creating unsafe conditions.
“Social distancing is crucial in small, poorly ventilated classrooms which are occupied for prolonged periods of time given what we now know about how the virus can be transmitted.”
Despite concerns that some parents are abusing the system and taking up school places they don’t need, he feels the majority are just doing what they have to do, often because of ‘unbelievable financial pressures’ that many families are facing.
“The vast majority of parents are taking a responsible approach and even if they recognise some danger to their family from their children attending school, they may have no choice in the matter,” he said.
“When it’s a case of bring the money in or get by on foodbanks or family donations, there’s no choice at all and I completely understand that.
“We know that many parts of the labour market are deregulated and exploitative employers are unlikely to act responsibly.”
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A DfE spokesperson said: “Schools remain open to vulnerable children and children of critical workers, but if critical workers can work from home and look after their children at the same time then they should do so.
“We also continue to provide devices at huge speed and scale for those children who need them the most, with over 927,000 laptops now delivered to schools and councils. Over 365,000 of these have been delivered since schools closed to most pupils, helping ensure no child loses out while learning at home.
“We are taking every possible measure to reduce Covid cases and the protective measures that schools have been following throughout the autumn term continue to be in place to help protect staff and students, while the national lockdown helps reduce transmission in the wider community.”