‘It’s scary’: record Covid absences cause concern in England’s schools

Last week more than 100,000 children were absent from school in England with confirmed or suspected Covid infections, the highest number during the pandemic, according to the Department for Education.

Five parents and teachers in England share their experiences since the start of the new school year, including how they, their families and their pupils have been affected.

Ryan*, 41, an English and media studies teacher at a secondary school in Derbyshire, wants tougher Covid measures reintroduced after testing positive in the second week of the new term.

“I’ve been quite shocked at the level of Covid already,” he says. “It’s been ripping through our school. There are about 50 pupils absent out of 1,300. We would have bubbled last year. We would have had kids using masks. We’d have had one way systems. The government has taken all of that away. I get the feeling from the government that we’ve been thrown to the wolves. Teaching staff are sacrificial lambs at this point.”

He worries that his absence will further hinder his year 11 and 13 students’ preparation for exams after months of Covid disruption. “I’m facing the prospect of not completing exam courses this year because of this delay over the last 10 days,” he says. “We were already behind when we started in September. I just wanted to get this year started smoothly, but that’s already been a disaster by week two of the term.”

Although David 49, an IT manager from Berkshire, thinks that easing restrictions has some benefits for children’s learning, he is wary after an outbreak at his daughter’s nursery led to the whole family contracting Covid.

He tested positive for Covid last week along with his wife, their seven-year-old son and three-year-old daughter. “When my son tested positive and we told the school, they didn’t notify the year group, and it has spread,” he says. “They’ve been back at school for two weeks, and it’s almost like the school’s been decimated. Maybe half of my son’s class is out with it and it’s hit the other years too.”

The easing of Covid restrictions has left parents at the school, which had never seen a Covid outbreak before September, confused and anxious, he adds. “It’s very panicky on the parents’ WhatsApp group. There’s lots of people saying, ‘go get tested’, ‘don’t bring your kids in until they’re tested’, ‘my child’s got a runny nose, is that a symptom? Should I hold them back?’ No one quite knows what to do.”

Within a week of Louise’s* two daughters returning to school, both had tested positive for Covid. The special needs teacher, 42, from Cambridgeshire, says “My children haven’t seen their dad, who has Parkinson’s disease, for over a week.”

“If he gets Covid, he’s going to be hospitalised. He has his own zone in the house, and the girls are in the other part, and I’m the bridge between them. It’s incredibly isolating for him. But we just can’t take that risk. My kids would have been absolutely devastated if they passed Covid on to their dad and he’d got really poorly.”

Without restrictions like those in place in schools for most of last year, such as mandatory face masks, isolation and bubbles, she fears that her daughters, aged 11 and 12, will catch Covid again. “My eldest goes back to school on Thursday, my youngest goes back next Monday. I’m just going to be on edge for that entire time, worrying if they’re bringing something into the house.”

Sarah*, an English teacher, 48, from Oxfordshire, is more optimistic, despite her 16-year-old son testing positive after going to a party soon after restarting school.

“My son has been isolating in his room for the last two weeks,” she says. “Nevertheless, I had quite a lot of exposure [to the virus] from him and I didn’t get it. Neither did my 14-year-old daughter, who is unvaccinated.”

Sarah decided it was safe for her daughter to return to school, which is now permitted under the new Covid school rules. “I felt like we were horribly infectious but I couldn’t bear to keep my 14-year-old daughter home again. I’m well aware that people might be outraged. But rules have changed and it was so much better for her mental health. I didn’t get any negative reaction, people at school knew what I was doing.”

Marie*, 39, a project manager from Leeds, believes the government is in denial about the scale of oubreaks in school. Both her son, 7, and her daughter, 3, are back home after an outbreak at their primary school and nursery.

“My son tested positive on Monday, so he’s now in isolation until next Thursday,” she says, adding that the rest of her family has tested negative. “My husband is a secondary school teacher and he’s now not teaching, so everything suffers. It’s like lockdown all over again.”

Vaccinated parents and parents, as well as pupils, caught Covid as a result of the outbreak at her son’s school, Marie adds. “I think we ended up on Friday with only 13 children left in [my son’s] class. There’s at least 15 kids with a positive PCR. School’s shut the class. They’ve shut my daughter’s nursery class and stopped doing hot meals because of staff catching Covid or having to isolate. I know of three sets of parents that have now caught it from their children as well. It’s scary how it’s run rife.”

Marie believes the outbreak shows that the previous Covid restrictions in schools worked. “The head teacher is doing a fabulous job but the school is at the mercy of Department for Education rules,” she says. “The government’s doing nothing about it. It’s insane. They say schools are open and they’re not. If we’d closed a bubble when there was just one case, [Covid] would not have run right through the school.”

*Names have been changed.

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