School attendance in Hull, the UK's Covid hotspot, has dropped to 65 per cent with more than one in six teachers also off, Tes can reveal.
The new figures come as heads in the Yorkshire city call on ministers to trust them on the need for rotas to keep their schools open.
Tes has learned that the Department for Education (DfE) last week rejected headteachers' urgent call to recognise their health concerns and allow rotas.
A Hull headteacher has today strongly criticised the DfE response and accused ministers of being more interested in being able to say schools are open than in supporting education in the areas hardest hit by Covid-19.
“School staff, the local authority and public health officials are doing an extraordinary job to keep schools going,” the head, who wishes to remain anonymous, said.
'Lack of understanding' from ministers
“There is, though, a lack of understanding from politicians in London whose main aim seems to be being able to claim schools are fully open.
“The best thing for young people educationally and to limit the spread of the virus would be to move to a rota system for the next few weeks. This would limit the number of students on school sites and allow high-quality live online lessons for students at home.
“What schools can do remotely is very different from what we could do in March and the DfE should trust school leaders to do what is right for our young people and communities.”
Latest figures show Hull has 754.5 Covid cases per 100,000, nearly three times the UK average of 265.6 and significantly higher than the second hotspot Blackburn with Darwen, with 553.1.
Attendance plummets and teachers forced to go off
A report on the Covid situation in Hull schools reveals that 57 out of 97 schools had year-group or bubble closures two days ago. Pupil attendance in the city's schools was 65 per cent compared with 84.6 per cent nationally.
The report says 414 teachers (17 per cent) were absent and a separate graph shows that more than 300 were either Covid cases, had suspected Covid or were self-isolating.
In total, more than 1,000 school staff were off two days ago. This figure is understood to include absence that is not related to Covid.
The report also demonstrates the sharp rise in the number of teachers and pupils who are off school because of Covid cases or potential contact with them in recent weeks.
The Hull Learning Partnership, which represents schools across the city, had asked the DfE for the “latitude” to be able to move to the second or third tiers of the DfE’s system for managing Covid.
Under tier 2 of this system, secondary schools move on to rotas, and in tier 3, some secondary school year groups would be sent home.
School staff 'under great strain'
“The system and the people within it are under great strain,” the partnership told the DfE. “We understand the national priority to have children in school and the sacrifices and tension that this necessarily involves.
“Colleagues across sectors have embraced the need to manage and find operational solutions to the daily challenges to the system.
“Colleagues are anxious to do their best for the children they serve, and many of them are also anxious for themselves and the health of their families and loved ones.
“As a matter of some urgency, we do need to have the latitude of tier 2 and 3 to maintain high-quality provision and the morale of all those in education.”
Plea for rotas rejected
However, the regional schools commissioner for the East Midlands and Humber, Carol Gray, has told Hull headteachers that no local areas would be moved beyond tier 1 in the national lockdown and that any decision to move schools on to these tiers should not be made locally.
Tes also revealed today that education secretary Gavin Williamson and health secretary Matt Hancock have written to local public health directors to tell them they should not move schools on to rotas during the national lockdown.
In a letter sent to Hull schools last week, the DfE's regional school commissioner for the area said: “Any judgement that an area should move out of tier 1 of the contain framework is for central government to make on the back of scientific advice / recommendations from Sage and in response to prevalence of the virus in a local area. These decisions should not be taken locally.
“We have taken a national decision to prioritise education during the current period of national restrictions in order to avoid any further reduction in face-to-face education for children and young people beyond what is necessitated when they are required to self-isolate.
“We will therefore not be moving up the tiers in any local area during the period of national lockdown – this means no move to rotas in secondary schools, or to increased online learning in colleges. The secretaries of state for education and health have written to directors of public health to clarify this position.”
The leader of Hull City Council, Stephen Brady, has now written to prime minister Boris Johnson calling on him to allow “more local freedom and flexibility” in restrictions around schools.
Tes revealed earlier this week how secondary school teachers in the city feel they are risking their lives on a "daily basis".
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The government does not underestimate the scale of the challenge schools and colleges are facing in areas like Hull where prevalence of the virus is high.
“However, an area-wide approach of closing schools or moving to rotas is not the right solution.
“The latest attendance stats show only 0.2 per cent of pupils nationally were off school isolating with a confirmed case of coronavirus. It is by following the national measures to reduce cases in the community that together we will bring down cases in schools.
“The government is committed to working closely with schools and the local authority in Hull to do everything possible to support them.
“It remains this government’s national priority to keep schools fully open to all pupils, in light of the clear evidence of harm caused to children and young people’s education and wellbeing through closures of any sort.”