How should schools organise Test and Trace?

School leaders have had to take on the responsibility of running Test and Trace in their schools – but what does the guidance say about how it should be done?
5th March 2021, 1:55pm
Grainne Hallahan


How should schools organise Test and Trace?
Coronavirus: Are School Leaders Following The Test & Trace System Correctly?

When students returned to school in September, it was clear that an effective test and trace system would be key in keeping education open to all.

But as time has gone on, and the volume of cases has increased, dealing with the test and trace problem has become a 24/7 job for school leaders.

Now as we look to a return for all on March 8, it seems certain Test and Trace will rise in importance again.

James Bowen, director of policy at the NAHT school leaders' union, says maybe the process needs an update:

"We are now over a year in to the pandemic and so it really is time that the government come up with suitable alternative arrangements," he says. "They cannot continue to rely on school leaders to prop up the test and trace system. We have repeatedly called on them to address this issue."

Bowen also feels we have reached a point where the line of responsibility has become blurred.

"We are deeply concerned about the way in which school leaders have become an integral part of the test and trace system, and the pressure this is placing on them," he says. "School leaders are having to deal with reported cases late into the night, during weekends and throughout holidays. They are working seven days a week, and this is not sustainable."

Coronavirus: Test and Trace in schools 

The NAHT has called on the government to reconsider the current arrangement, and the NASUWT teaching union has called for funding so school staff are paid to continue test and trace over the Christmas break.

Despite promises of a vaccine now becoming a reality, the truth is that mass vaccinations are a long way off, and schools will be continuing to deal with Test and Trace for the foreseeable future.

It is clear, schools will need to work out a way to effectively coordinate the Test and Trace system.

Tes spoke to the Department for Education and the NAHT to find out the details of how they expect Test and Trace to work in schools.

What are the rules for what constitutes 'close contact'?

The DfE guidance describes close contact as the following:

  • Direct close contacts - face-to-face contact with an infected individual for any length of time, within one metre, including being coughed on, a face-to-face conversation or unprotected physical contact (skin-to-skin).
  • Proximity contacts - extended close contact (within one to two metres for more than 15 minutes) with an infected individual.
  • Travelling in a small vehicle, like a car, with an infected person.

What needs to happen when a student, staff member or school visitor tests positive?

The NAHT: When a school gets a report of a positive case, it has two choices:
1. To call the DfE helpline for advice; or
2. To call its local health protection team for advice - usually organised through the local authority.

In either case, they do need to notify the local authority. People calling the DfE helpline should be reminded to do this automatically as part of that call.

The DfE: Schools can contact the dedicated advice service introduced by Public Health England (PHE) and delivered by the NHS Business Services Authority. This can be reached by calling the DfE helpline on 0800 046 8687 and selecting option 1 for advice on the action to take in response to a positive case. Schools will be put through to a team of advisers, who will inform them of what action is needed based on the latest public health advice.

Schools need to regularly liaise with their local authorities. How is this best organised?

The NAHT: It's important to make sure that schools know in advance exactly what they'll do when a confirmed case comes in. This means having the phone number of the DfE helpline, the local health protection team and/or the local authority (if different) to hand. It also means having the list of contact groups and bubbles ready to share.

Where possible, it is advisable to try and set up a rota system so that the responsibility for liaising with the local authority and/or the DfE is shared between different members of the senior leadership team, particularly when this work is taking place outside of normal school hours (of course, this is more challenging in smaller schools).

How can schools ensure consistency when judging who needs to isolate based on contact with a student?

The NAHT: This all comes down to the advice the school is given. The school will inform the DfE helpline advisor, or the local health protection team, about the circumstances of their school - eg, the number of cases, the size of the "bubble group", etc. They should then be given advice on who needs to self-isolate as a result. It is important to remember that the advice may not always be exactly the same from school to school as the circumstances in each could be significantly different (eg, the size of the bubble).

The DfE: Regional schools commissioners (RSCs) have worked to help hundreds of settings to remain open throughout the pandemic. They will always discuss with schools the range of resources and mitigations that can be used to avoid the need to consider school closure or a change in operation. 

Those mitigations potentially could include access to direct school-to-school cupport. This mechanism allows schools to receive support to respond to challenges arising from the coronavirus from strong local trusts or national leaders of education, and is brokered by RSCs. This includes support around bubble management, risk assessment, remote education and leadership.

Schools are able to access Public Health England advice through the DfE coronavirus helpline (see above). The helpline is a triage service and if the operator considers that the caller requires more support they will make a referral to the local PHE team. If schools are unhappy with the advice received via the helpline, then they should escalate this directly by emailing, including details of the call.

How can schools effectively communicate the isolation rules with parents and carers?

The NAHT: It would make sense for schools to have a pre-prepared email and/or text message that can be used to inform parents and carers of the need for pupils to self-isolate.

This could cover: confirmation of a confirmed case within a bubble, the fact that the school has taken advice on this, the number of days that the pupil needs to self-isolate for as a result of that advice, what this means for other household members, and any arrangements the schools is putting in place for remote learning and keeping in touch. The message should also have a link to the relevant government guidance.

By having this pre-prepared, it should make it easier to respond quickly when a positive case is reported. It should also reduce workload, as a similar message can be used on numerous occasions.

The DfE: Schools must ensure they understand the NHS test and trace process. Schools must ensure that staff members and parents/carers understand that they will need to be ready and willing to book tests if symptoms appear, share information with the test and trace system and self-isolate.

Who needs to be informed of a positive case? 

The NAHT: Schools should take the advice of the public health experts when deciding who should be contacted. Clearly, the first priority is to contact the staff and families directly affected so that they know not to come into school. However, many schools will also choose to inform the wider community if there has been a case and explain the action that is being taken.

It's also obviously extremely important to ensure that all staff are kept informed about what is happening, and the action the schools is taking, as well as any action they need to take as individuals. Once again, it's important to stress that the action is based on the advice the schools have received. 

Great care needs to be taken to respect the confidentiality of the individuals involved as far as possible, and leaders will want to discuss that with any individuals who have tested positive before communicating more widely. They will also want to think carefully about who in the community is likely to have come into contact with the person before deciding how that information should be shared.

How might schools ensure that these communications are clear for those groups with whom communication is sometimes difficult?

The NAHT: Schools should look to how they usually ensure that their communications are relevant and clear for different groups of parents, and take a similar approach. This could include translating messages into different languages if they would normally do this, or making follow-up calls to specific parents where appropriate.

Will schools have the capacity to meet the demands of Test and Trace in 2021?

Schools opening to all from March 8 presents a number of challenges, but what will the demand upon schools for Test and Trace match that of the Autumn term? As scientists predict a rise in R once students return, school leaders fear that once again they'll be overwhelmed with cases.

How can we ensure consistency from school to school with the application of the advice from local health protection teams? The DfE tell us that Regional School Commissioners have helped "hundreds" of schools, but there are over 24,000 schools in England. Is it even possible to monitor how consistently the advice is being applied?

It's also worrying that the unrealistic expectation of teachers to stay 2 metres away from their classes might lead to a reluctance from staff to name students as close contacts. Add into the mix the unreliability of memory, and we have a real cause for concern with regards to how successfully this data will be collected as the number of cases rise.

The challenge facing schools is only growing, and it's time more support was given to ease the burden of tracing contacts.

Tes Covid Support Hub

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Register for free to read more

You can read two more articles on Tes for free this month if you register using the button below.

Alternatively, you can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

Already registered? Log in

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Subscribe to read more

You can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters