An analysis of school absences in England during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Abstract

Background: The introduction of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection, in the UK in early 2020, resulted in the introduction of several control policies to reduce disease spread. As part of these restrictions, schools were closed to all pupils in March (except for vulnerable and key worker children), before re-opening to certain year groups in June. Finally, all school children returned to the classroom in September. Methods: Here, we analyse data on school absences in late 2020 as a result of COVID-19 infection and how that varied through time as other measures in the community were introduced. We utilise data from the Department for Education Educational Settings database and examine how pupil and teacher absences change in both primary and secondary schools. Results: Our results show that absences as a result of COVID-19 infection rose steadily following the re-opening of schools in September. Cases in teachers declined during the November lockdown, particularly in regions previously in tier 3, the highest level of control at the time. Cases in secondary school pupils increased for the first 2 weeks of the November lockdown, before decreasing. Since the introduction of the tier system, the number of absences with confirmed infection in primary schools was observed to be (markedly) lower than that in secondary schools. In December, we observed a large rise in the number of absences per school in secondary school settings in the South East and London, but such rises were not observed in other regions or in primary school settings. We conjecture that the increased transmissibility of the new variant in these regions may have contributed to this rise in secondary school cases. Finally, we observe a positive correlation between cases in the community and cases in schools in most regions, with weak evidence suggesting that cases in schools lag behind cases in the surrounding community. Conclusions: We conclude that there is no significant evidence to suggest that schools are playing a substantial role in driving spread in the community and that careful monitoring may be required as schools re-open to determine the effect associated with open schools upon community incidence.

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Southall, E., Holmes, A., Hill, E. M., Atkins, B. D., Leng, T., Thompson, R. N., … Tildesley, M. J. (2021). An analysis of school absences in England during the COVID-19 pandemic. BMC Medicine, 19(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-021-01990-x

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