Coronavirus: Testing ‘chaos' could force widespread school closures, teachers and unions warn

‘The testing regime is a shambles,’ says academy leader – as schools reveal staff shortages already causing problems

Adam Forrest
Wednesday 16 September 2020 19:25 BST
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Jeremy Hunt challenges Matt Hancock on Covid-19 testing shortage

Schools across England and Wales are struggling to cope with a lack of coronavirus tests and the “increasingly out of control” situation could force widespread closures in the weeks ahead, teachers and education unions have warned.

Thousands of pupils have been sent home in recent days after positive test results for the disease have forced hundreds of schools to ask classes or year group bubbles to self-isolate for 14 days.

Head teachers have told The Independent about the obstacles faced by school staff when trying to procure Covid-19 tests, and said teacher shortages were already causing “significant” problems in delivering lessons.  

The difficulties in accessing tests and the long delays in receiving results were causing some teachers to be off for a week or more once they displayed symptoms – even if they eventually test negative, they said.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said it has received emails from 264 schools and colleges who said they had staff or pupils who had symptoms and were struggling to find an available test.

Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis Community Learning – a trust responsible for 52 academies across England – said 1,200 pupils had been sent home from schools in London, Bristol, Birmingham and Greater Manchester since the beginning of the new term.

The school leader said 12 teachers were off at a single secondary in London’s Waterloo area. “They can’t get a test,” said Mr Chalke. “The testing regime at the moment is a shambles. It’s very difficult to get tests and it takes too long to get the results – as long as five days or more.”  

He added: “We haven’t had to close any schools, but as it stands, unless things change, it’s going to be inevitable we’ll see a lot of school closures across the country. The only way for schools to stay safe and stay open through the autumn and winter is to have on-site testing at schools … so we can test all pupils on a regular basis, and to get the results rapidly.”

Jules White, head teacher at the Tanbridge House School in Horsham, said five of his teachers were off with symptoms at the moment, out of  a total of 200 – and were either trying to get a test or were still waiting for the result. 

“Just a couple of weeks in, we’re already seeing significant staffing issues,” he said.  

The school leader, who also runs the WorthLess? campaign network of head teachers, added: “If we’re experiencing this now, what’s it going to be like in the autumn when almost everyone gets a cough or other symptoms and are off school – waiting for a test for a week or more? It’s a massive worry.”

“We could see the kind of serious staff shortages that mean you get at least partial closures in school – a whole year sent home because you don’t have the teachers. Everyone accepts you could have a year group out because of an outbreak, but if the problem is exacerbated by staff shortages, it’s going to make everything worse.”

Education secretary Gavin Williamson said each school was given 10 home-tests at the start of term, and more kits had been made available for head teachers to order online from 8am on Wednesday morning. 

Gavin Williamson speaking to education committee on Wednesday (PA)

However, the Department of Education could not say how many kits would be made available to schools in the days ahead, and school leaders expressed scepticism about whether a large enough number would be made quickly enough to cope with demand.  

“I would doubt it would be enough to make up for failures in the wider [testing] system,” said Mr White. “Key worker status counts for nothing at the moment – teachers are typing in their details are getting the same message as so many others: there are no tests.”

One primary school teacher in Birmingham – told to self-isolate earlier this week along with her year group bubble after a pupil in her class tested positive – said staff shortages had added to a “very messy” situation.

“It’s becoming a nightmare to keep things going,” said the teacher, who did not wish to be named. “We have five members of staff with symptoms of the virus who are struggling to get tested, but have to stay away from school in the meantime. And the school can’t afford to bring in supply teachers.

“My year group and another year group have been sent home because one pupil in each year tested positive. It’s difficult to see how it will be sustainable to keep the school open if these things keep happening.”  

The ASCL, school leaders’ union NAHT and the National Governance Association have written a joint letter to No 10 to express their concerns about testing “chaos”. The letter warns of a “deep sense of foreboding about the potential for the system to become ever-more riddled with delays as more [coronavirus] cases emerge”.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL said keeping schools open would become “unsustainable” if the problems with testing capacity were not fixed.

Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, also called on the government to prioritise the education sector for the allocation of tests – calling the shortages “increasingly out of control”.

In a letter to the schools’ minister Nick Gibb, Dr Roach said union members have reported that there are around 600 pupils in just one local authority in Bury who are now self-isolating, and he said the “number is growing”.

At least 300 schools in England and Wales have reported sending some pupils home following coronavirus infections since the start of term earlier this month, and another 30 are thought to have been forced to shut their doors in the past two weeks. 

On Wednesday the education secretary said not all pupils sent home due to a positive case in a school need to get tested if they have no symptoms. “It is only the child that is displaying symptoms as against the whole cohort.”

Speaking to MPs on the Commons’ education select committee, Mr Williamson also said he could not “guarantee” that pupils and teachers who need tests would be able to get them within 48 hours in the event of outbreaks.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Testing capacity is the highest it has ever been, but we are seeing a significant demand for tests. It is vital that children and school staff only get a test if they develop coronavirus symptoms.

“Children who are self-isolating will receive remote education. We will continue to work with schools to ensure all appropriate steps are taken to keep pupils and staff safe.”

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