Could Matt Hancock help schools with mass Covid tests?

How kind of the health secretary to offer to take a hands-on role in running mass Covid tests, says Yvonne Williams
21st December 2020, 12:32pm
Yvonne Williams


Could Matt Hancock help schools with mass Covid tests?
Coronavirus: Will Health Secretary Matt Hancock Come & Help Schools Run Mass Covid Tests?

Dear Mr Hancock,

We are delighted to confirm your work-shadowing placement at Anytime School. It is so inspiring to see a minister wanting to see what an initiative looks like on the ground, and to hear that it's "absolutely fine" for you to give up some of your valuable Christmas holiday time to come and observe.

So that you can see both ends of the testing process - the set-up and the implementation - your placement will be split in two. Therefore, we have set up the first part as of Tuesday 22 December to Friday 25 December, with the headteacher, and the second at the beginning of January when schools reopen.

Because of this weekend's changes to tiers, and the new guidelines, we have made special arrangements. Prior to the placement, you should self-administer a test and ensure the result is negative before proceeding. You will be provided with a standard-issue visor - and mask for communal spaces -  to keep you safe, and you will follow the usual sanitisation protocols. It would be wise to bring along your own cold turkey sandwiches.

Coronavirus: Matt Hancock helping out in schools

The timings of your work experience could be quite tricky, as the emails, alerts and phone calls from stakeholders do not always arrive within office hours. We will therefore expect you to be on call at all times of the day and night.

As our school is trying to minimise energy costs, the head, in her usual public-spirited fashion, has agreed to accommodate you in the well-ventilated corridor outside her study, with the door open so that you can see the range of tasks she now routinely carries out. 

The head will talk you through the various elements of her remit that you will observe, including the WhatsApp track and trace system, as currently operated by schools at no extra cost to the state. 

As you and your government colleagues are used to breaking bad news to people at awkward times - particularly just before holidays and at weekends - and know the ins and outs of the most recent directives, your assistance could prove invaluable. You could provide help in interpreting seating plans for the affected year-group bubbles - against public health guidance - to determine who should be alerted and told to self-isolate during the Christmas period. 

Assisting with the recruitment of personnel

Most of your shadowing will cover the new requirements for schools in setting up tests. Because it gets tedious just watching someone at work, we feel that you would welcome being involved in some of the trickier aspects of the job of setting up school testing sites. An extra pair of sanitised hands is always welcome.

You could be asked to assist with some of the recruitment of personnel to carry out the tests when the school opens its doors on 4 January 2021. (Or whenever it might actually happen - perhaps you can shed some light here.)

As you know, it has not always been easy for all schools to recruit their full quota of governors, and Anytime School has struggled in this respect for some years. However, the head is always willing to follow official suggestions and approach these people, as well as public-spirited parents. Your diplomatic phone calls could yield some volunteers.

Efficiency savings have been in line with recommendations, so there are not many teaching assistants to go around, but a few phone calls from you could well motivate them to offer extra hours unpaid in the mornings, to make the testing happen. I'm sure that this, too, will be absolutely fine. 

Last-minute training of relevant staff

The second part of your placement will commence on Monday 4 January, when you will see the last-minute training of relevant personnel taking place. Then it will all go live on 5 January, as Year 11 and Year 13 pupils return, ready for their mock exams.

As you know, it won't be quite like the drive-in testing sites for the general public, as the school car park would quickly overflow under the volume of traffic of an entire year group. Fortunately, the deputy heads will have established a rota, and socially distanced queues for our 12-form entry cohort. You will have the opportunity to try out all the roles, as suggested by your colleague Mr Gibb in DfE guidance. It'll help make up the staffing numbers.

Students will understandably be nervous about both types of tests: the Covid test and, of course, their mock exams. You could settle their nerves by providing authoritative assurance that they will sit the real exams, and that mocks are no more than a dress rehearsal for the real thing.

On subsequent days, you will be able to act as recorder, test assistant, processor, registration assistant and results recorder. Staff "volunteers" - normally those on duty first thing - will operate as team leaders, while their morning registrations are covered by other staff. On the final day, as the cleaner responsible for ensuring that all the tables and instruments are properly cleansed, you will see how the hygiene protocols work.

We are very excited by the possibilities offered by the new testing regime, and hope that this 360-degree work-shadowing will provide you with real-time insight into every aspect of this vital operation.

Perhaps, having experienced the reality of implementation and the huge investment of time by all members of the school community - many of whom have not had a break since September - you might recommend to the chancellor that more funding and personnel could be provided. Maybe?

Yours sincerely,

Anytime School

Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama in a secondary school in the South of England. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge) 

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