When Government told schools to reopen with almost no Covid safety measures in place this September, its advisers SAGE warned that it was “highly likely that high prevalence will be seen within schools by the end of September 2021”.
The Department for Education’s own figures now show that SAGE was right. Over 100,000 pupils were absent from school with suspected or confirmed Covid on 16 September.
Yet it still remains unclear what Government’s plan is for dealing with this – especially for the thousands of households with vulnerable members who are terrified of sending unvaccinated children into an environment where it is now, as Chris Whitty says, “a near certainty” that they will become infected.
Schools and local authorities should be taking a pragmatic approach, authorising absences and providing remote education for children whose attendance at school could create a serious risk to them or their loved ones. For some families, that risk will reduce over the coming weeks as more children are vaccinated (and more immunosuppressed adults receive their third dose). For others, it will last longer. In all cases, schools and local authorities have the power to decide when a Covid-related absence is justified, and they should be using that power in a thoughtful, humane way.
Instead, too many are applying a blanket approach, refusing to approve any absence unless the child has Covid. Parents are being threatened with fines and criminal sanctions; many have been forced to deregister their children from schools they love.
Much of the blame lies with Government, which has published guidance encouraging this rigid approach. It essentially asks schools – and parents – to simply pretend that Covid has gone away. Our lawyers have written to the new Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, asking him to urgently update the guidance, so that schools understand they can be flexible.
Plainly we want children back in school. But the transition to a world with Covid is complex. It will take time and sensitivity. What we need in the meantime is for Government, local authorities and schools to support loving families to do what is in the interests of their children and other vulnerable family members.
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