Schools and colleges have been told to prepare for the return of on-site Covid testing from the start of the autumn term, with test kits and PPE to be sent out.
In a letter sent to education leaders, seen by FE Week’s sister publication Schools Week, schools minister Nick Gibb states the government wants education settings to “be prepared for all scenarios, including testing on return after the summer holidays.”
The letter states: “Given the uncertainties around the Covid situation we will face in the autumn, we want to help schools and colleges to be prepared for all scenarios, including testing on return after the summer holidays.
“We will therefore provide all schools and colleges with refreshed guidance, test kits, and PPE so that they can be ready to stand up on-site Asymptomatic Test Sites (ATS) from the start of the autumn term. We expect to be able to confirm the position alongside announcements on Step 4”.
Prime minister Boris Johnson has said it is “very likely” people will be able to return to “pretty much life before Covid” on July 19.
Tests will start to be delivered from June 29 and information on delivery schedule and refreshed guidance is now available for schools on the “document sharing platform”.
School and college Covid outbreaks rise
It comes as cases in schools and colleges rocket. Data from Public Health England published last week shows there were 151 new Covid outbreaks in education settings in the week ending June 20, up from 96 the week before.
A PHE technical briefing on variants of concern released last week also shows that education settings were the “most common settings” for outbreaks of both the alpha and delta variants between April 28 and May 19, but such events became far less common around half term at the end of May.
Schools and colleges set for summer contact tracing role
The letter confirms regular rapid asymptomatic testing will be paused in schools and colleges over the summer except for those that remain open.
For settings that open as summer schools, NHS Test and Trace will provide support with contact tracing. But testing will still be widely available and kits can be collects from either the local pharmacy or ordered online.
It is understood that at a meeting today, DfE officials suggested schools may be responsible for contact tracing in the first week of the summer holidays – a situation similar to that over Christmas.
Schools and colleges were previously asked to conduct on-site testing in March when most students returned following the third lockdown.
Secondary school and college students needed to be tested four times in the first fortnight back – with the first three tests conducted on-site and the fourth at home. Testing was voluntary and pupils were allowed to attend lessons as normal following their first negative result.
‘This is completely unacceptable’
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it is “completely unacceptable” for the DfE to “tell schools and colleges without any consultation and in the vaguest terms that they may have to set up something akin to field hospitals at the start of next term”.
“There appears to be no understanding of the scale of the logistical challenge involved in setting up on-site Covid testing and processing hundreds or thousands of pupils,” he added.
Barton said ASCL’s understanding is that the intention is that schools and colleges would be asked to test every pupil twice in on-site stations.
However, “this is not explained in yesterday’s communication, and neither is the apparent plan to then replace self-isolation of close contacts of positive Covid cases with daily contact testing next term”, which was flagged up separately by the new health secretary Sajid Javid yesterday.
Gibb, in his letter, said he “recognises how difficult the past 18 months have been and how hard teachers and staff have worked to keep schools and colleges open.
“This has been an enormously challenging time for everyone and we would like to take the opportunity to thank you for everything you have done, including on testing, to maintain education provision during the pandemic.”