Rapid-result coronavirus tests will be rolled out to all secondary schools and colleges across England from January, the government has confirmed.
In an announcement today, the government said the rollout means students will not need to self-isolate if one of their number tests positive, providing they agree to daily testing.
From January, staff will be able to be tested weekly as a matter of routine, and staff and students who are identified as close contacts of positive cases at a college can be tested daily.
The testing will be voluntary, but the guidance says that those eligible for tests “are strongly encouraged to participate to reduce the risk of transmission within schools and colleges”.
The Department for Education said students will be eligible for daily testing for seven days if they are identified as a close contact.
The DfE says from January, those in the same bubble as a confirmed case will not need to self-isolate if they agree to be tested once a day. Close contacts of positive cases who do not want to participate in daily testing will still have to be sent home.
The DfE confirmed that there was “no expectation” school and college staff will need to work on this over the Christmas break to prepare for the testing. They say existing staff meetings or inset days can be used for training as appropriate for each college.
It comes after organisations representing staff raised logistics concerns about possible mass testing plans.
The DfE said test kits will begin arriving at secondary schools and colleges for the “first phase of rollout to staff from the first week of January”. Colleges will also be provided with personal protective equipment and “comprehensive guidance and training materials and support to introduce a testing programme that works for staff, students and pupils”.
The DfE has also said colleges will be reimbursed for “reasonable administrative costs such as staff time”.
The lateral flow tests produce a result in 30 minutes and do not require a laboratory to process.
But the government has emphasised that just because staff or pupils test negative, it does not “remove the risk of transmission”.
“In some cases, someone who has tested negative may still have the undetected disease and be infectious. It is therefore essential that everyone continues to follow good hygiene and observe social distancing measures whether or not they have been tested.”
Anyone who is showing coronavirus symptoms but has a negative result from a rapid test will be required to self-isolate until the result from a lab-based polymerise chain reaction (PCR) test is known, the guidance adds.
The DfE say testing pilots that have taken place in schools and colleges over the autumn term have shown the “positive impact” regular testing can have in finding asymptomatic cases before they spread.
Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes said it was “clear” that until a fuller rollout of the vaccine, “a strong testing and track and trace system is the best way that education and training can remain open and operating effectively”.
“This is a positive move in the right direction and one that will be welcomed by colleges. As with all things, implementation is key – it is vital that this happens smoothly and quickly, with as little impact on staff workload and learning time as possible.”
Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, added: “Our members have worked tirelessly this year to ensure that all students have access to a high quality education delivered in the safest possible environment. Today’s announcement is another stage in that journey and we are pleased that staff and students are being prioritised.
“January is already set to be an extremely busy month for colleges, and they will need the right support to ensure these tests are administered in the appropriate way.”
The rollout will initially focus on schools and colleges and therefore does not apply to other FE providers such as independent training providers. However, the DfE will “keep this under review”.