A more effective test and trace system is needed to make schools and parents feel more confident as students return in September, headteachers have told The Independent following a recent study into the programme.
Simon Smith, who leads a primary school in Yorkshire, said test and trace was a “key element” in keeping schools safe.
“Parents need to feel all the systems are there,” he told The Independent, ”and that if something does happen, things will happen very, very quickly in terms of the actions that schools will take”.
“Track and trace is a key part of that,” the headteacher at East Whitby Primary Academy said.
His comments come after a study has suggested the government must scale-up its test and trace system - which tells people if they have been contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus and to isolate for two weeks – to avoid a second wave of coronavirus infections as schools fully reopen.
One of the authors, Chris Bonell, professor of public health sociology at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), said the current testing system has “about 50 per cent coverage”.
A government minister said the plan for English schools to welcome all students back next month is “not up for debate” on Tuesday following the study’s publication.
Speaking about test and trace, Mr Smith from East Whitby Primary Academy said: “As a headteacher, I feel very little confidence at the moment around the fact we would be informed, or everybody is being informed that should be informed.
“It may be people are wandering around with the virus without knowing.”
Pepe Di’Iasio, a headteacher near Rotherham, said a scaled-up test and trace system would help his school feel better prepared for the September return.
“I think we would all feel better if we had confidence in the system and obviously with four weeks to go,” Mr Di’Iasio, who is also vice president elect of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), told The Independent.
“We would rather have that confidence as quickly as possible.”
If there was a potential surge in autumn, the Wales High School headteacher said, it would help staff “to feel more confident” if they knew the school was able to “track it, trace it and lock it down as soon as possible”.
Researchers from University College London and LSHTM simulated various scenarios to examine the possible implications of schools reopening in the UK coupled with broader reopening of society, such as more parents returning to the workplace and increased socialising within the community.
The authors of the modelling study – published in The Lancet Child And Adolescent Health - found that “with increased levels of testing... and effective contact tracing and isolation, an epidemic rebound might be prevented”.
“Reopening schools fully in September, alongside reopening workplaces in society, without an effective test, trace, isolating (TTI) strategy could result in a second wave of infections between two and 2.3 times the size of the original wave,” Mr Bonell from LSHTM said.
“Currently, TTI is not achieving the levels that we modelled. Looking at the NHS reports from the TTI system, it looks like it’s about 50 per cent coverage,” he added.
The NAHT, a school leaders’ union, said the new research showed “just how many factors there are to preventing a worsening Covid-19 outbreak, most of which are entirely outside a school’s control”.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary, said: “The success of September’s return to school rests as much on what happens outside the school gates as within.”
He added: “The government needs to ensure that everyone knows what actions they should be taking to keep everyone safe – we’re all going to need to work together to be successful.”
Meanwhile, Richard Bettsworth from ASCL said: “It is very clear that an effective test, trace, and isolate strategy is vital in suppressing the rate of infection, and keeping schools open.”
The director of public affairs added: “The government has to make sure that this works at the scale that is necessary.”
Schools are expected to fully reopen to all students in September.
A government spokesperson said: “We have rapidly built, from scratch, the largest diagnostic testing industry in British history. Over 16 million tests have been delivered so far and we have the capacity to carry out more than 330,000 tests per day, growing to 500,000 per day by the end of October.
“Plans have been put in place to ensure schools can re-open safely. Local health officials, using the latest data, will able to determine the best action to take to help curb the spread of the virus should there be a rise in cases.
They added: “The NHS Test and Trace service has now and contacted more than 218,000 people who have tested positive for the virus, or recently been in contact with someone who has tested positive – in order to break the chain of transmission.”
Additional reporting by Press Association
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