Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Daniel Hewitt
A headteacher's union said at some schools, up to 70% of families are still taking their children onsite. It comes after students in schools and colleges – except children of key workers and vulnerable pupils – were told to learn remotely until mid-February.
The Department for Education (DfE) said children with at least one parent or carer who was a critical worker could attend class – even if parents were working from home.
Guidance from the DfE, released on Thursday afternoon, said: “We know that every school will have a different number of children of critical workers who need to attend.
“It is important that on-site provision is provided for these pupils, and there is no limit to numbers of these pupils who may attend and schools should not limit attendance of these groups.”
The DfE added that parents or carers who were critical workers should “keep their children at home if they can”.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union the NAHT, had heard of some schools with up to 70% of their families taking up onsite provision.
He said: “This could seriously undermine the impact of lockdown measures, and may even run the risk of extending school closures.”
According to the National Education Union (NEU), many headteachers have said that the increased number of key workers' children in schools "defeats the point of a move to remote learning."
Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary at NEU said: "The Government is not going to achieve its aim of 'reducing social contact across areas' if schools remain packed with students with the virus running rampant."
Penny Sheppard, headteacher at Queens Hill Primary in Norwich, said the number of key workers' children at her school had increased by over 65% since the first lockdown.
She suspects that since last year, companies that employ key workers have "relooked at the way they work", i.e. they've made adaptations so more staff members can work from home, rather than be put on furlough.
Norfolk County Council, which covers Norwich, said it was working with education leaders in the region to develop a prioritisation criteria for school places.
The council said it was likely in some schools this would mean both parents were expected to be key workers, with priority given to those whose parents worked in emergency life-saving services.
Some key workers have said the demand has created a 'lottery' for school places.
Dr Julia Grace Patterson, an NHS worker who runs the Every Doctor network of medics, tweeted: "A senior NHS emergency medicine doctor within our network is being denied school places for her children in the key worker ‘lottery’"Why are frontline staff not being prioritised?"
Parents and teachers of children at Special Educational Needs schools explain how the latest lockdown has impacted them
A DfE spokesperson said: “Schools are open for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. We expect schools to work with families to ensure all critical worker children are given access to a place if this is required.
“If critical workers can work from home and look after their children at the same time then they should do so, but otherwise this provision is in place to enable them to provide vital services.
“The protective measures that schools have been following throughout the autumn terms remain in place to help protect staff and students, while the national lockdown helps reduce transmission in the wider community.”