The Department for Education is "encouraging" colleges to plan for rolling out mass testing from the first week of term.
In a statement issued to Tes today, the DfE said that it was offering colleges support to test as many students as possible.
A spokesperson said: "We are offering colleges help and support to test as many students as possible as they resume face-to-face education, and encouraging them to do so – especially where prevalence of the virus is high.
"We know that colleges will want to follow the example of Newcastle Sixth Form College, who piloted mass testing in December and will offer lateral flow tests to all students and staff members in their first week of face-to-face teaching after Christmas."
Coronavirus: Mass testing in FE colleges
However, the Association of Colleges told college leaders earlier this week that they should not feel pressured to start planning for the weekly tests during the Christmas holidays.
In an alert sent out to AoC members, chief executive David Hughes said those colleges that wished to move on with Covid test planning should get in touch with their contacts at the Education and Skills Funding Agency this week or next , "but it is completely legitimate for you NOT to make contact until next year".
He added: "I was reassured by the education secretary in the meeting on Saturday that no pressure will be put on college leaders to start testing from 4 January."
Covid testing: AoC urges leaders not to feel pressured
Background: How will Covid testing in colleges work?
Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said that the opportunity to plan the "complex logistical exercise of mass testing from the start of next term simply did not exist."
“Colleges have, on the whole, been keen to introduce testing for students for some time now," he said. "It will help them to identify those that need to self-isolate and therefore reduce the number of students missing learning. However, the announcement by the government at the end of last week came as a surprise, and at a time when staff and students were going home for a hard-earned and well-deserved Christmas break with their families.
"The opportunity to plan the complex logistical exercise of mass testing from the start of next term simply did not exist. It was not realistic to expect colleges to recruit additional staff and to organise an army of volunteers over Christmas, and the detail of the help and support available has still not been made available.
"So it is right that the government is now talking about delaying the start of the testing for many students. But, in colleges, where most students are facing exams this year and will therefore be in from 4 January, there may be thousands of young people in line for testing from the first day of term, and colleges cannot prepare for that."
Last week colleges were told that mass testing would be introduced across secondary schools and the further education sector from 4 January. The DfE confirmed that staff should receive weekly Covid tests and students should receive tests if they have been in contact with someone who has tested positive.
In DfE guidance to colleges on how the testing would work, leaders were told there would be seven roles needed to oversee the process from start to finish – although one person could do more than one role. Those expected to fill those roles could be college staff but could also be volunteers, the DfE said.
The last-minute nature of the announcement caused uproar in the education sector. On Friday, the Association of Colleges and the Sixth Form Colleges Association co-signed a letter from a number of education unions that described the government’s plan as "inoperable" for most colleges to carry out "in a safe and effective manner".
The joint statement said: "The suggestion that schools can safely recruit, train and organise a team of suitable volunteers to staff and run testing stations on their premises by the start of the new term is simply not realistic.”
However, when speaking to Tes in an exclusive interview, apprenticeships and skills minister Gillian Keegan said that the testing would be a “game changer” and a “great comfort” to students, staff and parents.
'Under constant review'
On Thursday last week, the DfE confirmed that there would be a staggered return to further education for students, and that those who were sitting an exam in January or in the summer should return on 4 January, while those who weren’t should receive remote learning for the first week.
However, in a press conference yesterday, prime minister Boris Johnson suggested that schools may not open to students in the new year – he did not mention colleges specifically.
He said: “Obviously we want, if we possibly can, to get schools back in a staggered way at the beginning of January in the way that we've set out. But obviously, like you expect, the commonsensical thing to do is to follow the path of the epidemic and, as we showed last Saturday, to keep things under constant review."