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COVID-19: Schools and colleges put in ‘impossible position’ over testing, unions warn

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Most secondary schools and colleges in England will struggle to provide mass testing for pupils and staff and have been put in an “impossible position”, a coalition of education unions has said.

In a joint statement, they said they were “supportive of the concept” of using lateral flow tests to detect cases of COVID-19 in schools.

But the unions said the “chaotic and rushed nature of this announcement, the lack of proper guidance, and an absence of appropriate support” meant that the government’s plan “in its current form will be inoperable for most schools and colleges”.

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Mass testing to be rolled out in schools

“Schools and colleges simply do not have the staffing capacity to carry this out themselves. As such, most will not be in a position to carry this out in a safe and effective manner,” the statement continued.

“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.

“All our organisations agree that educational staff have once again been put in an impossible position as a result of this latest announcement.”

And the unions added: “Given that the government’s own guidance makes it clear this is an optional offer, no school or college should come under pressure if they are unable to implement these plans, or if they believe it would be unsafe to do so.”

The statement was issued by the NAHT, the Association of School and College Leaders, the National Education Union, the NASUWT, the Association of Colleges, the National Governance Association and The Church of England Education Office.

It comes after schools minister Nick Gibb told Sky News that teachers will not have to play a role in coronavirus testing in schools.

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Education secretary on mass testing in schools

“Teachers are already fully occupied…they already have their hands full,” he said.

The return of secondary school and college pupils will be staggered in the first week of January, the government announced yesterday.

Students set to take exams will go back as normal after Christmas, but the majority of those in secondary school will begin the term with online learning.

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Primary school pupils will go back to school as normal in January, alongside vulnerable pupils and key workers’ children.

Face-to-face education for all students will return on 11 January.

The plan is to use the staggered return to allow schools to roll out mass testing of children and staff – but the announcement seemed to come as a surprise to headteachers, who have expressed concern about late notice and lack of clarity.

Two rapid tests will be offered to those students attending classes, three days apart, with positive results confirmed by a lab-based PCR test.

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Those with a positive test will be required to self-isolate in line with existing regulations.

Mr Gibb said this will be planned by the Armed Forces and administered by volunteers and agency workers.

“People are very community minded, this is a national effort,” he added.

“This is about our priority for education, making sure children are in the classroom, getting lessons.”

His comments come after Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said in a written ministerial statement that schools and colleges would need to “provide a few members of staff to support the testing programme”.

Listings on the jobs website Indeed show a number of schools are already looking to recruit people to help carry out tests.

Lavington School in Devizes, Wiltshire, is advertising for a “COVID-19 Tester” on a casual contract, paying ¬£10 an hour.

A recent study published in the British Medical Journal found that lateral flow tests only picked up 57.5% of positive cases when used by self-trained members of the public.

football souvenir colour Football Souvenir COVID-19: Schools and colleges put in 'impossible position' over testing, unions warn
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