Call to close schools in January ahead of Covid tests

Schools should move online next month to give staff time to prepare to administer the rapid coronavirus tests, says NEU
15th December 2020, 3:58pm
Amy Gibbons


Call to close schools in January ahead of Covid tests
Coronavirus: A Teaching Union Has Called For Schools To Remain Closed For The First Week Of The New Term So That Staff Have Time To Prepare For Administering Covid Tests

The government is being urged to move teaching online for the first week of next term to give schools enough time to train staff in administering Covid-19 tests.

Today the Department for Education announced that every secondary school in England, as well as special schools and alternative provision, will have access to rapid coronavirus tests from next month "to help keep staff and students as safe as possible and in education".

Today's press release from the DfE did not give an exact time frame for preparation, saying only that training materials and webinars will "shortly" be made available to schools "so they can start to use the new testing capacity as soon as possible".

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But the NEU teaching union has claimed the government is suggesting that preparation should commence this week.

The union said this was "ridiculous", as schools have been given "almost zero notice" to implement the plans.

Training teachers to carry out coronavirus tests

It is therefore calling for all teaching to be moved online for the first week of term "at least", so schools can use the time to train staff in testing protocols.

The DfE guidance says that the approach will be for the "school and college workforce to conduct weekly testing".

But as it also says that the approach is "for students and pupils as well as the school and college workforce to conduct daily testing for those identified as close contacts of workforce colleagues, students or pupils that have tested positive", it is unclear whether that actually means school staff will administer the tests.

When asked by Tes, the DfE was unable to clarify.    

The NAHT school leaders' union has warned that removing staff from classrooms in order to train them to administer tests is a "deeply flawed proposal".

Kevin Courtney, NEU joint-general secretary, said: "The NEU has been calling for wider testing for months but plans for the way to do this should have been thought through much earlier this term, and fully consulted on with the profession.

"This announcement gives almost zero notice for unions to assess the plans, or for schools to implement them.

"The government's suggestion that the preparation for the rollout of testing should happen this week is ridiculous. It will anger school leaders and their colleagues, who have constantly been treated as an afterthought by this government.

"Schools would return in January unprepared, in reality, and with a significant build-up of cases from the Christmas relaxation [of coronavirus restrictions].

"A much more sensible position, which we urge the government to adopt, would be that the first week, at least, of learning in January should be online, with schools using that time to train staff on using the testing materials and protocols.

"That extra week of children being at home would suppress virus levels so that far fewer children had to be sent home when testing begins."

He added: "We also need to see the studies showing how a system of serial testing, in which close contacts are kept at school and tested daily, has worked as a strategy to keep virus levels low. It is reasonable to suppose that children are transmitting inside and outside school, so only testing close contacts may miss a significant percentage of positive cases.  

"This rushed introduction is not a good starting point for building the confidence of parents or staff."

Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary, said: "It is extremely disappointing that what had the potential to be good news has been handled so badly by government. The government is in danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory once again.

"The use of lateral flow tests in schools has potential to make a positive impact by helping to break chains of transmission early. But this requires not only sufficient tests but also the trained staff to administer them.

"The government appears able to deliver on one but not the other - it is delivering testing kits to secondary schools without giving the staff the training or the clinical supervision to carry them out effectively."

Mr Whiteman added: "Removing school staff from the classroom and retraining them to administer clinical tests is a deeply flawed proposal. Schools and parents alike will want every education professional focused on supporting pupils to catch up on lost learning throughout the spring term.

"The government must look at alternatives to asking school staff to administer these tests. One solution could be to use the volunteers who signed up earlier in the year to support the NHS. They could be trained, accredited and insured and then sent in to support schools. This could then be expanded further if it was seen to be successful."

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