Now parents, governors and retired teachers could be roped in to test pupils for Covid-19 despite massive revolt over Ministers’ eleventh-hour plans
- Volunteers may be used instead of teachers to carry out rapid testing next year
- Major education unions have threatened to scupper the New Year programme
- Unions announced schools will have their backing if they refuse to cooperate
- Around 5.5million secondary pupils will be homeschooled for a week in January
Parents, governors and retired teachers could administer Covid tests in schools despite a massive revolt over ministers’ 11th-hour plans.
Volunteers may be used instead of teachers to carry out rapid testing at secondary schools in the New Year, schools minister Nick Gibb said yesterday.
But major education unions threatened to scupper the programme. They announced that schools will have their backing if they refuse to cooperate with the ‘inoperable’ testing plans.
The Government has announced that around 5.5million secondary pupils in England will be home-schooled for a week in January and only called on site for Covid-19 tests.
Volunteers may be used instead of teachers to carry out rapid testing at secondary schools in the New Year, schools minister Nick Gibb said yesterday. Pictured, St Columbia’s High School in Scotland
Only teenagers facing GCSE and A-levels in the summer, as well as the children of key workers and those in vulnerable situations, will have face-to-face learning from January 4.
The Government’s testing programme was revealed on Thursday afternoon, when thousands of schools were breaking up because they were taking ‘inset’ days yesterday.
Details on how schools are expected to deliver testing will not be revealed until next week – during the Christmas holidays.
However, an NHS Test and Trace handbook published on Tuesday under separate plans for tests for staff suggested that schools may ‘want to draw on volunteers’ such as ‘parents, retired teachers, Red Cross, St John Ambulance and community organisations’.
The handbook suggests that testing 100 people in three ‘bays’ in a school would take three hours and involve nine members of staff. This is based on 11 to 13 tests an hour. However, the Schools Week newspaper calculated that if all 3,456 of England’s state secondary schools tested 100 pupils on the same day, they would need 31,000 staff.
Mr Gibb defended the plans, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the Government had to ‘take action at pace’ due to the ‘fast-moving pandemic’. He insisted that volunteers – such as parents and governors – will not need DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service) checks because they will be ‘supervised’ by staff.
Pupils sit apart during a socially distanced language lesson at Longdendale High School. In a scathing joint statement, unions warned that testing in secondary schools will not be ready for the start of January – and said they should not be forced to roll it out
But the NASUWT union said it was ‘outrageous’ vetting would not be required. Kevin Courtney, of the National Education Union, said schools ‘will not be able to supervise all the volunteers that will be needed’.
In a scathing joint statement, unions warned that testing in secondary schools will not be ready for the start of January – and said they should not be forced to roll it out.
The statement, signed by the Association of School and College Leaders, NASUWT, NEU, the National Association of Head Teachers, the National Governance Association, the Sixth Form Colleges Association and the Church of England education office, 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.’
Meanwhile, Robert Halfon, Tory chairman of the Commons education committee, said the delayed term dates would place ‘enormous pressure’ on working parents.
He warned that it would lead to ‘more lost learning’.
But ministers hint it could be a waste of time
Mass testing is not an accurate way to screen the whole population, a health minister has admitted.
Lord Bethell, minister for innovation at the Department of Health, said that widespread asymptomatic testing could give ‘false reassurance’.
The Government has pinned its hopes on asymptomatic mass testing. In September Boris Johnson announced a plan to carry out ten million tests a day, called Operation Moonshot.
And only this week, the Government announced the expansion of asymptomatic mass testing and also said it would bring in testing in schools.
But Lord Bethell wrote to a constituent saying that ‘swab-testing people with no symptoms is not an accurate way of screening the general population, as there is a real risk of giving false reassurance’. In the letter, seen by the British Medical Journal, he added: ‘Widespread asymptomatic testing could undermine the value of testing, as there is a risk of giving misleading results. Rather, only people with Covid-19 symptoms should get tested.’
Around one in three individuals with Covid do not display symptoms so can infect people unknowingly. Most mass testing uses rapid lateral flow tests that do not need to be sent to a laboratory. But this is less accurate than PCR (poly-merase chain reaction) swab tests.
A Department of Health spokesman said: ‘The minister’s letter was in reply to a specific question about “blanket PCR testing” and it remains the case that PCR testing is prioritised for symptomatic testing.’
Ministers hope that broadening testing for those showing no symptoms will see positive cases found more quickly and help to break the chains of transmission.
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