The number of children out of school for Covid-19 related reasons in England has fallen compared to before the October half-term, figures show.
The Department for Education (DfE) estimates that 1.6% of all pupils, around 130,000 children, were not in class for reasons connected to coronavirus on November 11.
This was down from around 248,000 children, or 3.2% of all pupils, on October 21, the week before many schools went on half-term.
School leaders’ unions have called the downward trend “a relief”, but they have urged the Government to take more action to ensure that the data is not “merely a blip” before Covid-19 cases start to rise again.
Among pupils absent for Covid-19 reasons on November 11, the main reason for absence was a confirmed case of coronavirus, Government figures show.
Approximately 67,000 pupils in England were off for this reason, down from around 127,000 on October 21, and approximately 50,000 were off with a suspected case, down from around 87,000 three weeks before.
About 9,000 were absent due to isolation for other reasons, down from around 15,000 on October 21.
A further 4,000 pupils were off due to attendance restrictions being in place to manage an outbreak, down from around 12,000 three weeks before, the Government figures show.
Overall pupil attendance has increased from 88.2% on October 21 to 91.5% on November 11.
Vaccines have been available to 12-15 year-olds in England since September 20, and initially they were delivered mainly by NHS teams in schools.
This changed just before the October half-term holiday, when parents and children became able to book a jab online at a local vaccination centre.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “It is a relief to finally see positive progress on school attendance after months of severe disruption to education caused by the coronavirus, but the latest figures indicate we are not out of the woods yet and that the Government has more work to do.
“The natural circuit-breaker afforded by the half-term holiday seems to have had a positive effect on infection rates among both students and school staff, whilst the vaccination programme for 12 to 15-year-olds is also playing its part.
“It has taken much longer than the Government anticipated to reach the stage where a million young people have been vaccinated and there must now be a concerted push to complete the job.
“Encouraging those who haven’t yet been vaccinated to get their jab and asking all students to continue Covid testing at home must remain the Government’s focus.
“But it must also now provide funding for high-quality ventilation systems that schools and colleges need.
“Asking them to simply open more doors and windows is not a viable solution as outdoor temperatures plummet.”
The NAHT is also reiterating its calls for better support for schools that need to improve ventilation and a change to the guidance on self-isolation for siblings.
James Bowen, director of policy for school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “The Government now needs to do everything possible to make this the start of a downward trend and not merely a blip before cases start to rise again.
“Last half-term there was a sense that Government was simply sitting back and watching Covid numbers rise – we do not want to see that again this half-term.”
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “This time last year saw the virus raging through schools and it is essential this does not happen again. We must do everything we can to keep students in school, on site and to do so safely.
“The profession is playing its part in this aim, but will Government?
“It is to be hoped that the fall in Covid-related absence is maintained but this can only be ensured through improved mitigation measures in schools if we are to avoid history repeating itself.
“Several local authorities have recently moved to new arrangements, including social distancing measures, avoidance of large gatherings and the reintroduction of face coverings in secondary schools. These are sensible approaches which can help keep transmission down.”
A DfE spokeswoman said: “We are committed to protecting education, which is why the safety measures in place strike a balance between managing transmission risk with regular testing and enhanced ventilation and hygiene, and reducing disruption to face-to-face learning.
“We continue to work with parents and school and college staff to maximise students’ time in the classroom.
“The vaccination programme for 12 to 15-year-olds has already reached hundreds of thousands of students, and we encourage young people to get the vaccine and continue with twice weekly testing.”