Attendance at South Tyneside schools up by almost ten times compared with first lockdown

In-person class attendance at South Tyneside schools has risen almost tenfold compared to the first national lockdown last year, new figures have revealed.

Changes to the Government’s key and critical worker categories have seen attendance levels at borough schools balloon in comparison with figures for last year’s first national lockdown.

Last Wednesday, January 13, there were 3,963 children in schools across South Tyneside – compared to just 420 pupils being taught in classrooms across the borough on April 21 last year.

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Although schools remain closed to most pupils during this latest lockdown period, vulnerable pupils and children of critical workers are eligible to attend.

The number of pupils attending class in person at borough schools has risen by more than ten times in comparison with the first national lockdown last year

The Government has expanded the number of school places available to children with an extension of the criteria for critical workers and vulnerable children, which local authority chiefs and teaching unions say has had an impact on numbers.

A survey carried out this month suggested that 30% or more of some English primary schools’ normal roll had attended class in person for the first week of January.

Local authority chiefs say they are working to support schools struggling to manage under new pressures brought on by the sudden increase in attendance numbers.

Councillor Moira Smith, Lead Member for Children, Young People and Families, said: "The number of children attending school during this lockdown has increased.

"We know this is because the criteria for critical workers and vulnerable children have both been extended to include other groups which were not included in the first lockdown.

"We are working with our schools to offer support where there are challenges associated with the increase in numbers."

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Public health experts argue that teachers must be vaccinated before a wider reopening of schools can go ahead. However, this prioritisation would still not prevent pupils transmitting the virus.

Teaching unions have been at odds with the Government over its controversial school reopening calls at a number of points during the pandemic. The National Education Union (NEU) clashed once again with Number 10 over its New Year‘s decision to reopen schools.

“The NEU considers that one of the main reasons that the numbers have increased was because the Government redefined who was eligible to be included in the vulnerable category,” said Mick Lindsay, secretary at the NEU’s South Tyneside branch.

"The NEU want the children to be in school, but we also don't want to compromise the safety of the children, education staff and the wider community."

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Dr Patrick Roach, General Secretary of the TUC-affiliated NASUWT, urged ministers to do ‘whatever it takes’ to ensure parents are not forced to put their families and others at avoidable risk due to economic pressures.

He said: “The new coronavirus variant is much more transmissible which means that much more needs to be done to ensure that the Government’s stay at home message is being followed.

“Ministers have to take responsibility for protecting public health. However, we have heard contradictory messages from the Government which is now resulting in the majority of children and staff in attendance at some schools.

“Many parents who want to keep themselves and their children safe are unable to do so for financial reasons and it is important that they have access to financial support to stay safe.

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“The Prime Minister has been very clear to the country that schools do act as vectors for coronavirus transmission and may cause the virus to spread between households. The Government has also urged the public to act like they have the virus.

“It is essential that Ministers do whatever it takes to ensure that parents can afford to keep their children at home and that children who need to do so are able to access their education safely from home.”

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