Mass Covid test plans for schools: what we know so far

Here's everything we know to date about the DfE's last-minute plan for mass Covid testing in schools after Christmas
18th December 2020, 4:39pm
John Roberts


Mass Covid test plans for schools: what we know so far
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The Department for Education threw secondary schools into turmoil as term drew to a close before Christmas by announcing a national plan for them to carry out Covid-19 tests of their own staff and students from the first week of the spring term.

The late announcement was followed by a commitment from schools standards minister Nick Gibb this morning that 11 million tests would be available in schools from 4 January - effectively the next working school day.

However, education unions and organisations have come together to push back. They warned in a joint statement today that the government's plan for mass testing in its current form is "inoperable" for most schools and colleges to carry out "in a safe and effective manner".

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As a result, plans could shift over the coming days. In the meantime, here is everything we know so far about the government's plan for Covid testing in secondary schools in the new year.

The ways schools will be carrying out Covid tests

The Department for Education has made two separate announcements on the use of lateral-flow Covid testing in the new year for secondary schools.

First of all, it has committed to all secondary schools testing their staff once a week.

It has also said that anyone who is a close contact of a Covid case will be able to get seven daily tests, and if they remain negative will not have to self-isolate and continue to go into school.

The DfE then made a second announcement yesterday that it plans to test secondary students returning after Christmas twice in three days to break the Covid transmission after the holidays.

How many tests does it expect to be carried out?

In a round of media interviews this morning, Nick Gibb, the schools standards minister, suggested that 5.5 million students would be tested from the beginning of the new term.

This would mean 11 million tests being carried out from 4 January in schools and colleges.

Guidance published last night by the department said it wants as many secondary-age students and staff as possible to be offered two lateral-flow device tests, starting in the week beginning 4 January.

It said schools should prioritise staff, vulnerable children, the children of critical workers and students in Years 11 and 13. All other secondary year groups are being asked to work remotely in the first week of term.

Will it be compulsory for students to get tested?

The DfE has said is not compulsory for students to be tested, and acknowledged that there are some students for whom this is not possible.

However, it is strongly urging all students in schools or colleges to get tested during this period. The DfE said: "This will mean they can return to school knowing that the chances of them catching or spreading the virus have been minimised.

"There are millions of students to test, and this is a first-of-its-kind programme, so of course it will take some time. We will make sure as many students as possible can be tested."

How much time are schools getting to prepare for this?

Almost none. The announcement, which Tes exclusively revealed was coming, was not made until yesterday and the official guidance was only published after 5pm.

This left schools less than one full working day before the end of term to implement this. And many schools may already have put plans in place for an Inset day today after this was suggested by the DfE earlier in the term.

The new guidance says that, if they wish, schools can also use 4 January as an Inset day to prepare staff to deliver the testing.

But Mr Gibb said more detailed guidance would not be published until next week - which will be during the Christmas holidays.

What are schools being expected to do?

A handbook sent to schools this week set out the roles and responsibilities expected of them in the new testing regime.

Schools have been told they will need to train staff, allocate people to seven different roles and set up testing sites to support the rollout of Covid-19 testing in secondaries.

The seven roles comprise a team leader; a test assistant; a processor; a Covid-19 co-ordinator; a registration assistant; a results recorder; and a cleaner.

One person can carry out more than one role, according to the guidance sent to schools.

Who is expected to carry the tests out?

Mr Gibb said today that the government was not expecting teachers to carry out tests.

The Department for Education has said "the expectation is that in the majority of cases support staff, such as school nurses, will administer the tests". 

It has told Tes that the tests are quick to administer and quick to return a result.

It added: "There is comprehensive training for any staff asked to administer the tests, and administration does not require any clinical knowledge or experience".

The department has also said that the army will be called in to help schools to plan for the testing operation.

Today, Mr Gibb said that if required schools would be expected to recruit volunteers. "Volunteers are involved with school activity through governance, through parents being involved with the school," he said.

But asked if these volunteers would have to undergo safety checks, Mr Gibb said: "In terms of DBS checks, volunteers don't need them, provided they are supervised, and they will, of course, be supervised in terms of conducting these tests." Who will be expected to supervise the volunteers is not clear.

Will schools be getting extra money?

Schools have been told that they will be able to recover "reasonable administration costs".

However, the handbook sent to schools does not make clear what "reasonable" means, how much they can claim back or how this will be funded.

When she was questioned by MPs on this yesterday, the Department for Education's permanent secretary Susan Acland-Hood said that the scheme the government had announced did not involve extra direct funding or staff being provided for schools.

What is likely to happen next?

In the space of just a few hours today, we have seen Mr Gibb tell the nation that the government expected 11 million Covid tests to be available in secondary schools from the first week of January, and then union and school leaders issuing a joint statement to say that the current plan was not workable and that schools did not have to take part in it.

The statement by the Association of Colleges, the Association of School and College Leaders, the NAHT school leaders' union, NASUWT, the NEU teaching union, the NGA, the SFCA and the Church of England education office warned that most schools won't be able to roll out the 'inoperable' testing plan and should not be forced to engage.

The DfE will now have to meet the concerns of school leaders on how this testing can be delivered and this could result in a longer run in time before testing can be carried out on the scale the government has already committed to.

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