Covid-19 is running rampant in Kingston upon Hull in the East Riding of Yorkshire and its school system is on the brink of collapse as student and staff absences continue to rise. The rise in Covid-19 cases has been astonishing, having jumped ten-fold in five weeks to reach the highest case rate in England.

I have spoken to teachers across the city working in conditions where there is little social distancing to speak of, including chaotic corridors with very inconsistent compliance in mask-wearing and social distancing. Some schools are not even splitting teachers and pupils into social bubbles. There are reports of staff not properly cleaning down equipment such as photo copiers and facilities not being cleaned down adequately.

At many schools, parents have complained at the chaotic free for all at the school gates at opening and closing times. With social distancing, mask wearing, and staggered start and finish times not always enforced or adhered to. The lack of clear, central guidance, extra funding, testing and equipment and from central government has not helped the situation at all.

East Yorkshire has rapidly emerged as the UK’s new Covid-19 hotspot with 770 cases per 100,000 people — with schools being identified as major transmission hubs. Many schools are of course trying their best to follow guidelines, but with old fashioned buildings, small classrooms and poor ventilation this is not always feasible. I have spoken to teachers who are not even 2 metres away from the front row of desks, never mind safely distanced from the rest of the class.

If mass infection rates cannot be brought under control within the week, the school system will become unviable because so many staff are off ill or having to self-isolate. Councillor Peter Clark revealed that almost 15,000 students and teachers are currently absent with the numbers expected to rise.

It means around one-in-four children in Hull are absent from school due to the rapid rise in coronavirus cases. A full 27.6% of pupils were not in school on Monday – compared with about one in 10 across England – equating to about 12,000 children at home. Unless schools can partially close, or and take a more flexible approach, headteachers have warned of a “major threat” to public services.

A major secondary school on an East Hull council estate already had to close for a fortnight after a member of the Senior Leadership Team tested positive for Covid-19 having held face-to-face meetings with other members of the management team. The school is now subject to a complaint from a whistle blower contending that that there are not enough measures being put in place to protect teachers or pupils.

There are currently 32 members of staff missing from the school and it’s struggling to continue to operate using supply staff. It has been alleged that teachers Have been asked to ignore isolation requests from the NHS app and even delete it altogether. The situation is getting desperate and it will only get worse unless the government gets real.

The strain caused by the pandemic replicated across the city. The health emergency has led to half of Hull’s schools partly closing. The Alternative Provision School “Aspire Academy” that I have previously written about for Reaction, serves disadvantaged children but has been forced to closed due to illness amongst staff and pupils. It is now struggling to get the staff back it needs to re-open.

Diana Johnson, the Labour MP for Kingston Upon Hull North, said schools must be given the ability to partially close: “If staffing levels are greatly reduced because of Covid infections, schools could close. Before facing that, school leaders want to be able to move to a position where they could protect vulnerable and key worker children being in school. This seems a sensible and pragmatic move as the numbers of infections in the city are so high.”

However, a spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “The chief and deputy chief medical officers have been clear the balance of evidence is firmly in favour of schools remaining open, and have highlighted the damage caused by not being in education to children’s learning, development and mental health.”

The sentiment is understandable –  it is a disaster for children to miss out on education, especially in deprived areas. However, there seems to be no consideration to the health of the teachers and their families, nor any understanding of how operationally difficult it is as the disease spreads and absences rise.

Hull has been lucky throughout the year and managed to avoid the worst of the first wave, but that has only made the second wave worse. Now, however, there is a perfect Covid-19 storm and the government should ask fast. Teachers and headteachers with many years of experience and eyes on the ground here are asking for greater flexibility to deliver blended learning and prioritise key workers’ children from. Westminster’s point blank refusal will exacerbate the situation to the point that full closure becomes necessary.

NHS bosses in the city have backed the demand for reduced school contact time, saying it would lower community spread and, as a result, ease the growing pressures on Hull’s two hospitals. The government needs to forgo its usual tactic of acting too late and get on top of this situation now.

First of all, the government must consider a more flexible local approach to school openings to reduce the spread of the virus. Then it should seek – in combination with local authorities –  to replicate the mass testing programme that has been so successful in Liverpool and bring it to Hull. The Council itself doesn’t have the manpower to deliver this, like Liverpool, and it will need help from the army.

Hull is the fourth most deprived city in the country, this means rather than being ignored or shunned it needs special consideration. Levelling up promises are all and well for the future, but Hull needs help now to prevent it from becoming the epicentre of a devastating local crisis in health and education.