Since returning to school after the Christmas holidays, secondary school students have been asked to wear masks and to take tests at school before heading into classrooms amid a surge in Covid cases.
Although these measures are recommendations and are not mandatory, there have been reports that some parents and pupils are concerned that a number are choosing not to follow them.
Natalie Perera, chief executive of the Education Policy Institute (EPI) think tank, said that the high levels of pupil and staff absence in schools due to Covid are a “serious concern”.
The school leaders’ union NAHT has released the results of a snap poll of its members on the first day of term after the Christmas break, with the survey receiving nearly 2,000 responses from school leaders in England, who reported significant levels of staff absence.
More than a quarter (27%) said they had more than 10% of their teaching staff absent on the first day of term due to Covid-related reasons, with almost 1 in 10 (9%) saying they had more than 20% of their teaching staff absent.
Alongside this, 95% had pupils absent for Covid-related reasons, with almost a third (29%) saying they had more than 10% of their pupils absent for Covid-related reasons.
Concerns over absences “is why it’s important that we have in place a number of measures to reduce the spread of covid,” Ms Perera said.
She added: "Face coverings and regular testing are important ways for schools to tackle rising infection rates among pupils and staff, so it’s essential that all pupils adhere to these measures, unless they are exempt.”
Ms Perera added: "Parents have an important role to play in encouraging pupils to follow these measures, and we would expect them to support schools in their efforts to reduce the spread of covid."
‘A very difficult area to navigate’
Although many schools in England are now following the new measures, Julie McCulloch, Director of Policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said secondary schools being asked to provide pupils with on-site asymptomatic Covid testing is “a huge undertaking”.
Ms McCulloch said one of the considerations involved is “ensuring that appropriate consent is in place”.
Students aged 16 and above can give their own consent, but those under 16 need consent from a parent or guardian.
She said that while testing is strongly encouraged by the Government, it is not mandatory and participation is entirely voluntary.
Government guidance is also clear that students who do not take part in testing will still be able to attend their school.
Ms McCulloch added that government guidance lists a number of circumstances where people may not be able to wear a face covering and “advises education settings to be mindful and respectful of such circumstances”.
She said this “presents schools and colleges with a very difficult area to navigate in determining what are legitimate reasons and what are not legitimate reasons”.
“However, it is important to say that the majority of parents and pupils support the policies of their school or college in this respect, and in cases where there are issues this will generally be dealt with by way of appropriate conversations,” she added.