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Special Educational Needs: Coronavirus

Question for Department for Education

UIN 93820, tabled on 15 December 2021

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, with reference to the spread of the omicron variant of covid-19, what (a) assessment he has made of trends in the levels of staff sickness in special schools and (b) steps is he taking to support those schools to stay safely open.

Answered on

12 January 2022

The department understands that the Omicron variant is spreading quickly, and studies are underway to collect data to help us understand the impact, including for staff in special schools and special school providers.

The department regularly reviews workforce absence data and the latest published data as of 6 January shows that 6.2% of teachers and school leaders in state-funded special schools and 6.6% of teaching assistants and other staff were absent due to COVID-19 reasons.

As the situation develops, we will continue to review data, analysis, and advice from a number of different sources including the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), and the Office for National Statistics. We also work closely with the Department of Health and Social Care as well as local authorities and Directors of Public Health to inform our planning and response.

Since the emergence of Omicron, the department has updated the operational guidance for special schools and other specialist providers, which sets out how education providers should ensure that pupils and students who are required to isolate are able to access continued education and support. The guidance is clear that whilst our priority is for face-to-face, high-quality education for all pupils and students, if they are unable to attend then we expect their school or college to be able to offer them access to high quality remote education.

The department has re-introduced the COVID-19 workforce fund to provide financial support to eligible schools and colleges for additional staff absence costs incurred from 22 November until the February spring half term in 2022. The fund is available to support schools and colleges facing the greatest staffing and funding pressures to continue to deliver face-to-face, high-quality education to all pupils.

The government is clear on the critical importance of avoiding disruption to children and young people’s education. Schools must continue to comply with health and safety law and put in place proportionate control measures in line with our guidance: We continue to review the guidance regularly.

All secondary schools were asked to test their pupils once on-site, using lateral flow device tests, on return in January. Tests, personal protective equipment and funding to support the school workforce were provided. Secondary schools had the option to stagger the return to school for the first week to accommodate on-site testing. In recognition of the additional considerations specialist providers have to take into account when delivering rapid asymptomatic testing, additional guidance is available for these providers: This was updated on the 2 January 2022 to reflect the recommendation that from 4 January 2022 pupils and students in year 7 and above should wear face coverings in classrooms where they are able to do so.

We have also supported nurseries, schools and colleges to improve ventilation. Over 99% of eligible maintained schools, further education colleges, and the majority of nurseries have now received a carbon dioxide monitor with over 350,000 now delivered.