Schools struggle with ‘increasingly out of control’ Covid-19 testing issues

Schools go back in England
Schools go back in England - (Copyright PA Wire)
11:02am, Wed 16 Sep 2020
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Schools are struggling to cope with a lack of Covid-19 tests for pupils and staff as the situation is becoming “increasingly out of control”, a teaching union leader has warned.

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, has called on the Government to prioritise the education sector for the allocation of tests in light of the challenges.

In a letter to the schools minister, Dr Roach said the union had heard of approximately 600 pupils being told to self-isolate in one local authority area and he said the “number is growing”.

The union leader told Nick Gibb that pupils who have been sent home with symptoms are “facing uncertainty” about when or where they will be able to access a test.

He warned that the delays in testing have meant some students and staff who are part of a “bubble” within a school are not being isolated even where there are multiple suspected cases.

In particular, areas where additional local restrictions have been introduced due to the increase in the R-number are now unable to cope with demand for tests.

“This is putting at risk the health and safety of others within the school and within the local community,” Dr Roach said.

Three organisations representing school leaders and governors have also called on Boris Johnson to “take charge” of tackling the delays in obtaining Covid-19 tests to ensure schools remain open.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), school leaders’ union NAHT and the National Governance Association (NGA) have written to the Prime Minister to express concern about testing.

The letter warns of a “deep sense of foreboding about the potential for the system to become ever-more riddled with delays” as more cases emerge, which would be “increasingly disruptive to children’s education”.

The ASCL said it has received 264 emails on the test and trace system from schools and colleges which said they had symptomatic staff and/or pupils who were struggling to access tests.

“Schools are left in a position of either leaving close contacts of the infected person in school while they wait for guidance, or making a public health call themselves and deciding on who to send home. This places leaders in an impossible situation,” the letter adds.

Schools have been hit with Covid-19 cases since it became compulsory for pupils to return.

Some have closed their doors days after reopening while others have told whole year groups and classes to self-isolate for two weeks following confirmed cases.

NASUWT members are “expressing serious concerns about the failure” of the testing system and the impact on schools, the letter to Mr Gibb says.

Dr Roach said: “In particular, areas where additional local restrictions have been introduced due to the increase in the R-number are now unable to cope with demand for tests.

“Teachers, support staff and children and young people are unable to access tests where they have Covid-19 symptoms.

“Employers are struggling to deal with the implications and consequences.”

Local authorities across the country – including in the North West of England – are struggling to cope with the demand for tests from pupils and school staff, the union suggests.

The letter says members have reported that there are around 600 pupils in Bury who are self-isolating, while Salford council has been inundated with requests for tests from schools.

Dr Roach said: “Schools appear to be seeking to do their utmost to carry on.

“However, we have reports that schools are unable to cope with a situation that is becoming increasingly out of control.”

The founder of Oasis Community Learning, which is responsible for 31,500 children at 52 academies across England, said 1,200 pupils had been sent home over the first six days of the new school year.

Writing in The Sun, Steve Chalke added: “The reason is either pupils or teachers have symptoms and can’t return until they get a negative test result.”

Earlier this week, Dr Roach warned Gavin Williamson of the possibility of legal action if the Government fails to protect teachers working in schools which have fully reopened during the pandemic.

In a letter to the Education Secretary, Dr Roach demanded that stronger protections are put in place in schools which opened their doors to all pupils full-time this month.

Mr Williamson will face questions from MPs on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on pupils – including the grading U-turn over the summer.

A Government spokeswoman said: “Testing capacity is the highest it has ever been, but we are seeing a significant demand for tests. It is vital that children and school staff only get a test if they develop coronavirus symptoms.

“If a positive case is confirmed in a school, swift action is being taken to ask those who have been in close contact to self-isolate, and Public Health England’s local health protection teams continue to support and advise schools in this situation.

“Children who are self-isolating will receive remote education. We will continue to work with schools to ensure all appropriate steps are taken to keep pupils and staff safe.”

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