The Department for Education (DfE) has estimated more than five per cent of state school pupils in England were off school last week due to Covid-related reasons, continuing a rise seen over the past few weeks.
This includes more than 330,000 self-isolating due to potential contact with a Covid case - 270,000 of these involving potential contact in an educational setting - and tens of thousands more out of school with a suspected or confirmed coronavirus infection.
A leading union said there was a “real concern” numbers would only increase in the weeks ahead.
Releasing the latest data on school attendance during the coronavirus pandemic, the DfE said pupil absence linked to Covid in state schools is increasing and is “currently at its highest rate since schools reopened” to all pupils in March.
The department estimated 5.1 per cent of students in state schools were off last Thursday, when the latest available data is from, for reasons including a confirmed or suspected case, self-isolation due to being identified as a potential contact or school closures.
This was an increase from 3.3 per cent on 17 June and 1.1 per cent on 10 June.
The figures – which were adjusted for Year 11 and 13 pupils not expected to be in school at this time – estimated 6.2 per cent of secondary school pupils and 4.5 per cent of primary school pupils were not in school last Thursday due to Covid-related reasons.
“We are continuing to see a clear and concerning increase in both the number of cases of Covid-19 and the number of pupils needing to self-isolate as a result,” Paul Whiteman from the school leaders’ union NAHT said.
“Leaders are reporting that this is having a real impact in their schools, and that the level of disruption is now very high.”
The union’s general secretary added: “The government simply does not appear to have a grip on this situation and there is a real concern that we will continue to see these numbers continue to rise in the coming weeks.”
In the DfE figures published on Tuesday, the proportion of open educational settings also dropped slightly.
Geoff Barton from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said the latest data showed “another big week-on-week increase in Covid-related pupil absence”.
“Each confirmed Covid case has a huge knock-on effect because schools are then required by government rules to trace all close contacts and ask them to self-isolate. This is why the vast majority of Covid-related pupil absence is among close contacts rather than confirmed cases of the illness,” he said.
“Identifying close contacts and asking them to self-isolate is an incredibly time-consuming process for schools and colleges, and involves yet more educational disruption for the young people concerned.”
The ASCL general secretary added: “It is clear that a different approach is needed in the autumn term but what we have heard so far from the government amounts to no more than vague aspirations and there is still no robust and coherent plan in place.”
The new data comes amid reports pupils may be able to avoid automatically self-isolating after coming in contact with a Covid case under rules which could be introduced after the summer holidays.
Trials are currently ongoing into the use of daily contact testing in schools as an alternative to self-isolation after the measure was paused earlier this year following advice from Public Health England.
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said: “The vast majority of children and young people are in school, but I am aware that sadly a minority are experiencing disruption at the moment.”
He added: “I’ll be looking closely at the issues around the need for ongoing isolation of bubbles and the outcomes of the daily contact testing trial, as we consider a new model for keeping children in education.”
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies