Can you imagine what your response would have been if this time last year someone told you that secondary schools would be preparing for the mass testing of staff and pupils in response to a public health crisis?
This is yet another unknown for schools in a year full of changes to school life as we know it. There is no doubt that implementing mass testing in secondary schools, especially when large numbers of pupils return following the current national lockdown, will be a huge logistical challenge. However, hopefully it will provide much more reassurance for staff and pupils if schools are able to quickly identify staff and pupils with Covid-19, especially as approximately 1/3 of people with the virus are asymptomatic. The aim is to stop the transmission of the virus in school and have fewer bubbles being sent home following a positive case in school.
In light of a number of questions we have received about testing, we have developed Summary Advice on the Terms and Conditions relating to testing as well as the following FAQs.
What’s the current position relating to mass testing in secondary schools?
The Government announced just before the Christmas break that secondary schools should start planning to roll out mass lateral flow testing for staff and pupils. The original plan was to start testing staff and all pupils during the week commencing 11 January 2021 to identify any positive cases of Covid-19 and then to welcome all secondary school pupils back from 18 January. Staff were then due to be tested on a weekly basis and pupils would be tested on a serial basis for 7 consecutive days if they came into close contact with someone who had tested positive for Covid-19 in their bubble. If they tested negative then they could stay in school instead of having to self-isolate for 10 days, provided they have no symptoms of coronavirus.
The plans surrounding mass testing in school have now been altered because of the national lockdown imposed from 5 January 2021 as schools have now been asked to deliver remote learning except for vulnerable pupils and the children of critical workers who are permitted to attend school. Instead, secondary schools are being asked to test staff and vulnerable/critical worker children when they attend school this week. Secondary schools are then being asked to undertake weekly testing of staff whilst pupils who are attending school will be asked asked to participate in serial testing for 7 consecutive days if they have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19 in school.
Is testing mandatory?
No. The DfE guidance is clear that staff and pupils cannot be forced to take a test, though it does say that testing should be strongly encouraged. Active consent from parents/guardians is needed for pupils under the age of 16 and the DfE’s resources for schools includes a template letter to request such consent. Even if a consent form is signed by a parent/guardian, a pupil can still decline a test and should not be sanctioned if they do so. If consent is not provided for testing, pupils should not be denied the opportunity to attend school unless they have symptoms of Covid-19 or they are required to self-isolate for other reasons, for example, if they have been in close contact with someone in their bubble who has tested positive for coronavirus.
Does this mean that the school will need to identify the close contacts of an infected person who have agreed to serial testing and those who have not given consent?
Yes. In response to a confirmed case of Covid-19, schools will need to liaise with their local health protection teams to identify the close contacts of the infected person who:
- have agreed to be tested on a serial basis and who can stay in school provided the test result is negative and they aren’t displaying any symptoms; and
- have not agreed to be tested and who are therefore required to self-isolate for 10 days.
It is important to note that if close contacts of an infected person are being serially tested, they will need to wait somewhere before being allowed to begin normal school activities until they receive a negative test result. These holding spaces must be separated for each group of close contacts and cleaned after all individuals leave. Schools must therefore ensure that pupils understand where they are required to report and that they follow these instructions and do not enter other parts of the school site until they receive a negative result.
What should we do if parents have separated and one parent has given consent to testing and the other refuses consent?
In these circumstances the school should not allow the pupil to be tested and the pupil would have to self-isolate if they are in close contact with someone who tests positive for coronavirus. The school should not get involved in any disagreement and it would be for the parents to obtain their own legal advice if there is a dispute between them.
While testing is not mandatory, to what extent can the school insist that staff agree to be tested?
If they are in close contact with someone in school who has tested positive, the serial testing will allow them to stay in school instead of having to self-isolate if they test negative and they have no other symptoms. Whilst schools are delivering remote learning and supported learning for vulnerable children and children of key workers the attendance at school of staff is likely to be more by agreement and there is a good argument for saying that staff should only be put on a rota if they have agreed to be tested. It is hoped that staff will appreciate the need for this and not use testing as a reason not to do their bit on the rota.
There are risks associated with undertaking the testing process in school. Are we covered in the event of a claim?
The DfE’s FAQ document on their portal states the following, “The RPA will indemnify members if a claim is brought by a third party (including pupils) or employees. It will cover death, injury, or damage to third-party property, due to the school or colleges undertaking the rapid tests. It would be advisable that these establishments and all other schools and colleges which are not members of the RPA, should contact their individual commercial insurance provider, for definitive clarification on cover…. It is a requirement that risk assessments are undertaken, recorded, and adhered to.”
It will therefore be important for schools to develop risk assessments for the testing process and keep them and your testing protocol / regime under review. If any issues are identified as part of your risk assessment, schools should raise these issues via the DfE coronavirus helpline: 0800 046 8687 or at RapidTesting.SCHOOLS@education.gov.uk.
Schools that do not have cover with the RPA should make enquiries with their own insurers about the extent of cover available.
Can I ask teaching staff to assist with the testing process?
Whilst the administration tasks associated with testing would be part of a normal teacher or support staff job description, our view is that the “processor operative” i.e. the person who carries out the test on the swabs wouldn’t be as its medical procedure. That’s emphasised by the need for training before the processing role can be done. Given the demands of remote learning and supporting the vulnerable/critical worker children who are still attending school, it is likely that many teaching staff will not have the capacity to support this exercise.
It will be reasonable to expect staff who are attending the school on a rota basis to assist with the administration of testing but do bear in mind any particular sensitivities thrown up by individual staff risk assessments. The DfE guidance also suggests that the testing workforce could be made up of a mixture of volunteers and agency staff, identified by the school, such as non-teaching staff or exam invigilators and has made funding available for this. If those measures still didn’t elicit enough people to be on testing duty the DfE has invited schools to contact them via their helpline (details above).