Up to 25,000 teachers in England may already have been forced out of the classroom and into self-isolation at home amid a national shortage of Covid tests just a fortnight after schools reopened, research suggests.
With some schools reporting up to a fifth of their teaching staff off and unable to get a test, unions warned the crisis was spinning out of control and jeopardising plans for a full return to education, bringing the risk of “lockdown by default”.
One academy trust leader said that 740 state schools in England were either partially or wholly closed with Covid-related issues, meaning tens of thousands of pupils are stuck at home, with their parents unable to go to work.
Some private schools, meanwhile, are paying £120 to test symptomatic students and teachers after many were unable to secure tests locally. “If schools can afford to take the hit, private companies don’t have any problems providing tests,” said one Guildford private school teacher.
State schools are fast using up the 10 testing kits supplied by government at the start of term – regardless of the school’s size – as teachers and pupils with suspected Covid struggle to book tests.
On Wednesday, Boris Johnson admitted to MPs that the testing system “has huge problems”, as new figures showed nearly 4,000 UK cases in the last 24 hours – the highest daily total since early May.
The government responded to the growing schools crisis by setting up a hotline from Thursday for heads to call for advice and report cases after being told that staff were waiting hours or even days to hear back from local public health teams.
Headteachers representing more than 16,000 pupils in Gateshead in north-east England, which is on the government’s watchlist due to its high infection rate, said the lack of Covid testing would “break” some schools and that their plan for returning children to classrooms had “collapsed” due to the crisis.
A letter to MPs from the Gateshead Association of Primary Head Teachers, which represents 67 schools, cited “significant problems” with staff and children unable to get a test and those that did were taking “far too long” to get a result.
Mustafaa Malik, chair of the association and head of Harlow Green primary school in Gateshead, said a fifth of his teaching staff were isolating as well as a “double figures” number of its 400 pupils. He said there were considerable absences across the town, where the infection rate is nearly three times the England average.
“It’s just unsustainable,” he said. “The parents can feel the anxiety growing. It’s taken a lot of convincing them that it’s safe but we’re starting to get a buildup of fear in some communities.”
The cost of paying supply teachers to fill staff absences would break some school budgets and whole year groups would have to be sent home because heads could not afford to pay for their teaching, Malik added.
A survey of 6,700 teachers in England by the Teacher Tapp app found that 4% were isolating away from school for Covid-related reasons on Tuesday. That would equate to around 25,000 teachers nationally, with primary teachers more likely to be isolating, as were those teaching in the Midlands or the north-west of England.
Rebecca Allen, professor of education at the University of Brighton and chief analyst for Teacher Tapp – an app that conducts anonymous daily surveys of teachers and school leaders, said the results suggested the autumn and winter cold season was going to play havoc with staff numbers.
“We shouldn’t overlook the fact that more than 7 million children are in school with more learning taking place than during lockdown. But the government needs to add teachers to its priority list for tests, and it needs to find a way to help schools pay for the cost of hiring supply teachers to fill in for those isolating.
“Otherwise a lot of schools without surpluses will have no choice but to close after having spent their budgets on supply teachers.”
The Guardian understands that more than 30 schools in Oldham, one of England’s worst-hit areas, have had to send at least one year group home due to a Covid case. In wider Greater Manchester, more than 110 schools have reported at least one coronavirus case, with the figure rising daily.
Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, said the lack of testing and schools was “causing real distress” for families and teachers. “It needs to be fixed and fixed urgently,” he said.
Steve Chalke, founder of the Oasis Charitable Trust which runs 52 schools across England, many in deprived areas, said 1,200 children in two primaries and six secondary schools within the chain were currently at home self-isolating.
A single confirmed case in one Bristol secondary school resulted in 187 pupils in the same protective bubble being sent home. In some cases multiple year groups had been sent into self-isolation following guidance from local public health authorities.
“All of it is tragic,” said Chalke, who was among those school leaders pushing for an early return to classes after lockdown. “We were told this morning that 740 schools across England are either partly or wholly shut. We are frustrated. All of it could have been avoided. If Boris [Johnson] said it’s our moral duty to get back to school, it’s a moral duty to come up with a plan to keep schools open.”
Heads and school governors wrote to the prime minister on Wednesday imploring him to take personal charge of the crisis in Covid testing. The National Association of Head Teachers, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the National Governance Association leapfrogged the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, to tell Johnson they felt compelled to express “mounting concern”.
The ASCL’s general secretary, Geoff Barton, said: “This will feel I think like lockdown by default – it will be more frustrating for parents because you can’t predict whether it is going to happen.”
Announcing the new hotline for schools, Williamson said: “The number of confirmed cases in schools remains low but to protect schools it is important headteachers continue to have access to timely support and advice. This new dedicated advice line will help schools, colleges or early years settings to implement the most appropriate public health measures, once a case is confirmed.”