As our schools move into the school holidays, the government has announced that all secondary schools and colleges in England will have access to rapid coronavirus testing from January. This is a national rollout of a process that has apparently been piloted in a number of areas over the last few weeks. I will not criticise another government announcement on the cusp of a holiday period. Frankly, we have become accustomed to them and perhaps they are impossible to avoid. Certainly, it would be perverse for the government to plan them.
Under the government programme, we hear, all staff will have access to a lateral flow test weekly. Staff and pupils identified as close contacts of someone who has tested positive will be able to be tested daily. Anyone who agrees to be tested in this way will not need to self-isolate unless they themselves test positive.
So far, so good. ‘Test and trace’ has been hailed as an important weapon in our fight against the virus and mass testing turns the cannon ball into grapeshot. However, whilst the new programme is designed to keep pupils and staff in school (a good thing), I can’t help but wonder whether the reverse will happen.
Given the prevalence of asymptomatic cases, false negatives, false positives and the like, I am nervous about unintended consequences. As staff and pupils return from the Christmas holidays, it is probably wise to anticipate an increase in the incidence of the virus. What will be the impact on our schools and what have been the lessons learned from the pilot?
Inevitably there will be concerns about the practicalities of turning schools into mass testing centres, but I am confident that schools will cope, as they have consistently needed to since March. Of course, there will be disruption. Time out of class, test locations and Covid-security arrangements (one of the many good reasons to vaccinate staff early?), administration and protocols; there is much to consider.
When the incidence of the virus has been low and the effectiveness of test and trace poor, I suspect that some of our schools have been able to carry on in relatively blissful ignorance. But mass testing is a game changer and I wonder whether we are going to find that the virus is even more prevalent than we feared. How we respond will be crucial, but it could initially be more disruptive to our schools rather than less.
It would be reassuring to learn from experts that these concerns are unfounded, that the government has considered them and concluded that mass testing in schools is nevertheless the right approach. Releasing the details of the pilot and the testimony of school leaders involved would be a helpful start. At present, exhausted school leaders are starting their holidays waiting to manage the next new normal in January.
As ever, there is so much we do not yet know. Further guidance is promised, but it is school leaders who will need to manage parents’, pupils’ and staff expectations in January. School leaders will need to make the arrangements, plan the response and manage the fallout. The twists and turns of the pandemic are far from over and the increase in testing that some independent schools have experienced before Christmas has uncovered so many new cases that some have been forced to end physical teaching early.
The new year promises testing times in more than one sense, but let’s not assume that the medicine prescribed will be entirely palatable.
Government guidance is available here.
Written by HMC General Secretary, Dr Simon Hyde