Most school pupils had to spend time out of classes for coronavirus-related reasons in the autumn term, new government data shows.
The figures offer an insight into the scale of disruption that Covid-19 caused to schooling at a time when classrooms were fully open to all.
All pupils were allowed in lessons between last September and December, after only some had been allowed on-site for the last months of the previous academic year.
But returning positive Covid-19 tests, having symptoms or being identified as close contacts of a person infected by coronavirus meant some still had to stay at home in the autumn term.
Figures from the Department for Education (DfE) found 60 per cent of pupils had some period where they did not go into school due to coronavirus-related circumstances.
The latest figures found children spent an extra five days out of school on average due to Covid-related reasons in the autumn term. Across the entire school-age population, this represents 33 million classroom days.
The DfE said the overall absence rate in the autumn term not including Covid-19 absences was 4.7 per cent, which was similar to the 4.9 per cent logged the year before. A further 7 per cent of sessions were missed due to Covid-related circumstances, the department added.
Previous government publications showed hundreds of thousands of students were self-isolating at home each week towards the end of last year.
“These figures show what we already know – that the autumn term was an extremely turbulent period with pupils regularly having to self-isolate because they either contracted Covid or were in close contact with someone who tested positive,” Geoff Barton from the Association for School and College Leaders (ASCL) said.
“This difficult situation was compounded by significant problems early in the term obtaining Covid tests for pupils and staff and in obtaining public health support in handling positive cases.”
The union’s general secretary added: “The government’s refusal to give schools any flexibility to finish in-school teaching early before Christmas, which was accompanied by threats of legal action, made matters even worse.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Schools went to great lengths over the autumn term to become Covid-secure – implementing small group bubbles, one-way systems, staggered start, finish and lunch times, increased hygiene, handwashing and ventilation – to keep students and staff safe.
“Where students did have to self-isolate, schools provided high-quality remote education, supported by an unparalleled government rollout of laptops and tablets for eligible children.”
They added: “It is positive to see underlying absence slightly decreased compared with previous years, reflecting schools’ efforts to keep their students engaged throughout an incredibly challenging year.”