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The government’s plans for mass Covid testing of secondary pupils after Christmas are in disarray after unions told members not to work on the scheme over the holidays, branding it “inoperable” and “undeliverable”.
A statement by the four main teaching unions and the National Governance Association advised staff to delay preparations until the start of term on 4 or 5 January and refuse to work on the scheme over the Christmas break.
“It is our view that due to the chaotic and rushed nature of this announcement, the lack of proper guidance and an absence of appropriate support, the government’s plan in its current form will be inoperable for most schools and colleges,” the statement said.
“Schools and colleges simply do not have the staffing capacity to carry this out themselves. As such, most will not be in a position to carry this out in a safe and effective manner.”
The Royal Statistical Society said it had “major concerns” that the government’s plans may be unsafe because the tests were “imperfect and must be used with great care”, and it called on ministers to “review them with urgency”.
On Thursday the Department for Education announced that the return of secondary school pupils in England would be delayed by a week and replaced by remote learning for most year groups, to allow schools to test all pupils using rapid lateral flow tests.
Students and pupils at secondary schools and colleges are to be offered two rapid tests three days apart during the first week of term, with positive results confirmed by a lab-based PCR test.
But the government’s plan ran into controversy for lacking detail and for having been announced as schools close for the Christmas holidays.
In a measure of the DfE’s desperation to complete its own work on the programme, the Guardian has learned that civil servants in the department have been offered a £1,000 bonus if they volunteer to work over Christmas. The offer was announced by Susan Acland-Hood, the DfE’s permanent secretary, to staff on Thursday.
The DfE’s announcements have not included any additional payments for school staff working over the holiday period. School leaders have already been told to remain on call until 23 December to conduct track and trace for pupils who tested positive for the virus at the end of term.
Teachers and heads have told the Guardian of exhaustion as they come to the end of “a year of hell”. “I know heads who haven’t stopped since March and it’s not sustainable. At the best of times we work 50-plus hours a week. Now there are some teachers pushing 70-plus,” said one teacher, Matt David.
The advice from the four main unions – the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), the National Education Union and the NASUWT – reflects deep-seated anger among teachers at the DfE’s latest demands, and its failure to publish more details until just before Christmas.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the NAHT, said that while teachers supported the use of mass testing, there was not enough time to safely organise the screening of hundreds of pupils packed into just a few days by 4 January.
“Given the lack of detailed guidance or a coherent plan, we do not believe schools or colleges will be able to begin working on this before the start of next term. We will fully support members who choose not to implement the plan if they consider it to be unworkable in their schools, as the government guidance allows for this,” Whiteman said, emphasising that the DfE had labelled its plan an “offer”.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of ASCL, said: “It is not possible to recruit and train all the people needed to carry out tests and put in place the processes that would be necessary, over the Christmas period, and it is extremely regrettable that the government has given the public an expectation that this will happen.”
The schools minister, Nick Gibb, hosted an hour-long briefing for MPs at short notice on Friday and was unable to allay their concerns about whether schools would be given the resources they need to carry out the program.
“It was just dire,” said one person on the call. “The thing that really riled people was that he said several times: ‘This is a good news story.’”
The Royal Statistical Society said it had concerns about the scientific basis and safety of the government’s plans for testing in schools, and about “inaccuracies and omissions in the information provided to schools” by the DfE, noting that trials in Liverpool found tests missed more than half of positive cases, including 30% of those with high viral loads.
“In the new testing programme for schools, individuals who have been exposed and have received a negative result will still have a significant risk of having the Covid-19 infection and spreading it to others,” it said.
Anger at the lateness of the government’s announcement was also shared by school governors, whose national representatives were perplexed at suggestions by Gibb that they pitch in as volunteers.
Sam Henson, of the National Governance Association, said: “We’ve heard from a lot of members today who are just angry. Some say they would support their communities of course and would do what they can but others feel that it’s just totally inappropriate. There seems to be an assumption that schools just have this bank of volunteers, which just isn’t true.”
One chair of governors tweeted: “Not a chance of any of us volunteering for this. We are eyes-on, hands-off, and certainly not spare capacity to help the government. I do have some time during the day but this crosses a line.”
Kate Green, the shadow education secretary, said: “We have been calling for mass testing for months, it’s a really important thing to do – but the implementation of it, coming out in the most half-baked way in the week before Christmas, when school leaders and staff are exhausted, is really unsatisfactory.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Covid: unions say mass testing of England’s pupils ‘undeliverable’ | Schools