Headteachers have expressed concern over “worrying” reports of a recent rise in Covid cases in schools, with some school leaders saying they have been forced to send whole year groups home.

School leaders have also warned the issue could worsen when free lateral flow testing stops at the end of March.

Caroline Derbyshire, chair of the Headteachers’ Roundtable group and trust leader for Saffron Academy Trust, in Essex, told the PA news agency she had had to send year groups home.

She said she had “too many staff off with Covid, so in one school 24 in a day… and having exhausted all other options like supply teaching or collapsing groups, we just got to the point where we had to take a year out in order to have enough staff to continue to teach those who are in school”.

Ms Derbyshire said she had avoided sending home exam classes or Year 7 and that the school was using supply teachers, but there were “just not enough out there”.

“But also, if you’re talking about examination groups, you don’t want to have somebody who was once trained in PE trying to teach English – you really do need specific subject specialists.”

She added that she was seeing three times as many pupil absences since restrictions were lifted in February.

Data from the FFT Education Datalab’s attendance tracker showed a rise in pupil absence in primary and secondary schools last week compared with the week before.

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Absence increased from 5 per cent to 6.4 per cent for primary pupils and from 7.9 per cent to 8.8 per cent in secondary.

Figures compiled by Teacher Tapp, first reported by education website Tes, showed that in a survey of 6,643 teachers at the beginning of February, one in five secondary teachers (20%) said that their schools had arranged merged classes in halls or the canteen due to Covid absences.

The survey showed that over one in 10 (13 per cent) of teachers had to teach remotely by 2 February, while 8% had to teach a whole year group remotely.

And 48% of respondents who were senior leaders reported they had had “many problems” getting supply staff since the start of the academic year in September 2021.

Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We have been hearing worrying reports from schools and colleges over the last few days about rapidly increasing rates of Covid-related absence among both pupils and staff.

“The Government seems to have largely drawn a line under the pandemic and moved on but the evidence coming from our schools and colleges is that business is still very far from being back to normal.

“Staff and pupils will continue to have access to Covid tests until the end of March and are therefore able to check whether any potential Covid symptoms are actually Covid, and isolate if so.

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“The worry is that, once free testing stops as the Government is currently planning, the number of students and staff coming into classrooms with Covid could increase even further, and lead to even more disruption to education.

“There is still a real problem with coronavirus in our schools and colleges that the Government must not ignore.

“Testing is one of the few tools we still have to reduce transmission among students and staff and the Government must reverse its decision and continue to provide free tests to people working or studying in education settings beyond the end of March and for the foreseeable future.”