More than a third of schools in England are already experiencing staff absence levels of over 10% due to COVID-related reasons, a survey suggests.
Half are beginning the new term by turning to supply teachers – but 37% of those have been unable to source the cover they need, according to the snap poll by school leaders’ union NAHT.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, has warned that schools are “teetering on the edge” and that maintaining normal education will be “impossible”, with absences due to illness “very likely” to rise.
The findings came as pupils returned to class this week after the Christmas break, with new advice for secondary school and college students in England to wear face coverings in classrooms.
The poll, of almost 2,000 school leaders in England, suggests that 36% said they had more than 10% of their total school staff absent on the first day of term due to COVID-related reasons, while 27% said they had more than 10% of their teaching staff off.
Meanwhile, 9% reported that more than 20% of their teaching staff were absent.
Mr Whiteman said: “Schools are doing everything they can to maintain education for pupils in the face of very challenging circumstances.
“Given that this is a snapshot of just the first day of term, this is a very worrying picture. Infection rates – and therefore absence due to illness – could very likely rise as the term progresses.”
He added: “Many schools are teetering on the edge and the next few weeks at least will undoubtedly continue to be an incredibly challenging time.”
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has admitted that staff absences are likely to rise in schools in the weeks ahead with increasing COVID-19 cases.
Last month, the minister called on former teachers to return to the classroom as part of efforts to tackle staff shortages.
Ahead of the start of term, the Department for Education also told headteachers they may want to consider “combining classes” in the event of staff shortages to keep face-to-face teaching in place.
But Mr Whiteman says the government needs to back up its words with action.
He told Sky News: “The government’s rhetoric is supportive but at a time when it still wants to measure schools by the normal accountability measures, and inspection is still on the horizon against a framework that was designed for completely different circumstances, we’re very, very worried that school leaders making decisions in response to a crisis will be criticised later on for decisions that they absolutely had to make now.
“So the government needs to make a decision to remove those measurements, to remove those inspections and accountability, so that school leaders feel properly supported.”
A coalition of five unions representing teachers and support staff has suggested that schools that routinely ask staff to teach more pupils in merged classes amid shortages should be challenged.
A “safety checklist” – from the National Education Union, NASUWT teaching union, Unison, GMB and Unite – says merging classes “should not be adopted” as it will “increase virus transmission”.
The NAHT poll suggests that only 7% of school leaders have combined classes or pupil groups, and only 4% have had to send some classes or groups home.
Meanwhile, 200 Armed Forces personnel are being deployed to support the NHS in London as hospitals grapple with staff shortages.