The government has reintroduced its Covid workforce fund, set up to support schools with the cost of staff absences, amid increasing classroom disruption and fears over the Omicron variant.
The fund originally ran in the second half of the autumn term last year. It provides funding for supply staff and to increase the hours of part-time teachers and support staff, among other measures.
Now the Department for Education has announced the fund has been re-introduced to cover the cost of workforce absences experienced from November 22 until the end of term.
The move appears to be part of a push to ensure schools remain open in the final few weeks of term.
Latest attendance survey data showed a rise in workforce absence due to Covid.
On November 25, 2 per cent of teachers and leaders and 1.9 per cent of teaching assistants and other staff were absent due to Covid-related reasons, up from 1.4 per cent a fortnight before.
Absence with a confirmed case of Covid was the most common reason for staff being off.
However, schools will only be eligible for the extra cash if their reserves fall to less than 4 per cent of their annual income by the end of the current funding year – March 2022 for maintained schools and August 2022 for academies.
They will also only be able to claim if they have a short-term staff absence rate of more than 20 per cent on any given day, or more than 10 per cent over a 15-day period.
Ministers this week reintroduced advice urging staff and secondary pupils to wear face coverings in corridors.
The new measures are a “precaution” following discovery of the Omicron variant. Cloe contacts of the new variant will also have to isolate.
However, DfE attendance data estimates just 0.01 per cent of schools were closed as of last Thursday, with around 1,000 pupils absent because of closures.
Which schools can claim
In its guidance, the DfE said funding would be available to all state-funded mainstream and special schools, along with alternative provision that provides education to pupils required to be in compulsory education.
Independent special schools and private schools delivering AP are also eligible to claim for staff who support state-funded pupils.
What schools can claim for
To cover teacher absences, schools can claim for employing, either through agencies or directly, supply teachers or support staff.
They can also claim to increase the hours of part-time teaching or support staff, though the guidance states schools should “ensure staff are happy to temporarily increase their hours and consider staff workload and wellbeing”.
Schools can also claim to make “necessary amendments” to support staff terms and conditions to enable them to take on “additional responsibilities”. This should be determined “in discussions with the employee”.
To cover support staff absences, again, schools can claim for employing more staff either through agencies or directly, or to increase the hours of part-time workers.
However, schools cannot claim for training or other “incidental” staff-related costs, or increasing pro-rata pay “unless there is a commensurate increase in responsibilities associated with undertaking the work”.
Schools can only claim for covering the absences of permanent staff who are on their payroll or those employed on a long-term contract, for example, maternity cover or long-term sick cover.
Schools must have tried ‘alternative options’
Schools can only apply if they were open to all pupils except those complying with clinical or public health advice on the days in question.
They must also have tried “alternative options”, for example by using existing staff and resources. Schools will have to certify that the staffing absences claimed for are “necessary spend to remain open to all pupils”.
Schools must also be able to evidence claims, and won’t be eligible if costs are already covered by an existing insurance policy.
Use your reserves first, schools told
The guidance states that before claiming, schools “will first need to use any existing financial reserves, as we would typically expect when facing unforeseen costs”.
They will therefore only be eligible if their reserves at the end of the current funding year are down to a level of no more than 4 per cent of their annual income.
Schools and trusts should “consider their level of reserves based on their expected financial position at the end of the current funding year”. The DfE said funds can be clawed back where this criteria is not met by the end of the funding year.
Absence must rise above 20%
There is also a workforce absence rate criteria. For teachers, schools must reach either an initial teacher or leader absence threshold of 20 per cent on any given day (or 15 per cent for special and AP schools), or a lower threshold of 10 per cent if absence levels are long-term.
The guidance defines long-term as 15 or more consecutive school days.
Costs can only be claimed for absences “above, not at, the threshold”, the DfE said.
Claims for support staff can be made on an “exceptional only basis”, where they can certify that providing cover for that role is “necessary for remaining open to all pupils or meeting legal duties”.
Schools will be able to claim next spring
The DfE said schools would have to make the “necessary payments” from existing budgets, and will be able to make claims in the spring of 2022.
If schools cannot make the upfront payments because of cashflow issues, they should follow the normal process for seeking short-term advances from the ESFA if they are an academy or their local authority if they are a maintained school.