The government has written to schools telling them they should only grant extended absences relating to Covid in "exceptional circumstances".
In an email sent to heads today, seen by Tes, the Department for Education stressed that schools should "communicate clear and consistent expectations about attendance", as the latest figures show Covid-related absence rates continued to rise to the end of September.
The DfE pointed school leaders to a recent letter to parents from the deputy chief medical officer for England, informing them that children previously identified as clinically extremely vulnerable were no longer considered as such and would not be advised to shield in future.
Disruption: More than 200,000 pupils off because of Covid
And while the department said applications for extended absences "may be made for reasons arising out of the Covid-19 pandemic", it also advised schools that requests should only be granted in "exceptional circumstances" and for a "limited period of time".
Early on in his role as the new education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi said the government wouldn't "stand back and let attendance fall".
He made the comments after official figures showed that more than 100,000 children were out of school in England for Covid-related reasons in the middle of September.
However, the latest data, published last week, shows Covid-related absences have since increased.
More than 200,000 pupils were absent because of Covid on 30 September, with more than 100,000 having tested positive for the virus and another 84,000 pupils with a suspected case.
Overall school attendance dropped below 90 per cent.
In today's email to heads, the DfE said: "Schools continue to be able to grant leaves of absence for pupils subject to the normal rules.
"Applications for leave of absence may be made for reasons arising out of the Covid-19 pandemic that do not fall within the category above.
"Schools should consider all applications for leave of absence on an individual basis taking into account the specific facts and circumstances, and relevant background context behind the request.
"Schools should only grant leaves of absence in exceptional circumstances. If a leave of absence is agreed, it should only be for a specific period of time."
The department said regularly attending school was a "national priority" – and particularly important for children who were persistently absent during the pandemic.
It added: "We encourage schools to work together with local authority staff, attendance support workers, and local health services (including GPs and school nurses) to reassure families and ensure as many pupils are attending school as possible."