england's-schools-'will-grind-to-a-halt'-unless-covid-testing-improves

England's schools 'will grind to a halt' unless Covid testing improves

Schools in England face an autumn of paralysis due to difficulties in obtaining coronavirus tests, headteachers have warned, with education “grinding to a halt” when staff and students are forced to stay home following a suspected case.

Thousands of school leaders have written to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, warning of “partial rolling closures” of schools and disruption to pupils’ catch-up studies, because of serious staff shortages just days into the new term.

Headteachers told the Guardian that staff were in some cases unable to find any test slots available for days or were offered tests at sites more than 100 miles away. When they do get a test, it can take days for results to come through.

School leaders’ unions reported receiving calls from at least 400 members who had suspected cases in their schools, after just one week of full school reopenings in England.

“Yesterday I had three staff off as someone in their household has symptoms. None of them have been able to get a test,” said one primary school headteacher in Southampton last week.

“One did get a test booked in Portsmouth, arrived there to be turned away as they had no tests left. It is a nightmare.

“In order to run my school I need to be able to get staff tested quickly and back to work as soon as possible if the test is negative. We will grind to a halt if the availability of tests does not improve rapidly.”

The head of a rural primary school in Sussex said the shortage of tests “is the single issue which will derail the reopening and likely our budget too”.

“A high proportion of my staff are also parents of school-aged children. As soon as one of them has any likely symptoms I’ll be losing staff,” he said, adding that five of his pupils were off with suspected Covid-19 symptoms and had been unable to obtain tests.

“The increased supply costs will be a budgetary Armageddon and any plan to try to achieve stability and continuity for a very keen bunch of returning children will be next to impossible to achieve.”

A teacher at a school near Torquay was offered a drive-in test in Cardiff, one in Southampton was offered a test 170 miles away in Telford, and another in Swansea was told to go to Aberdeen airport. Meanwhile two secondary schools in the north of England were each forced to send an entire year group home because of suspected Covid cases.

The Worth Less? lobbying group, which represents thousands of headteachers across 75 local authorities in England, wrote to Williamson warning that the threat of partial rolling closures because of serious staff shortages is significant”.

The letter went on: “Many pupils, who have lost far too much learning time already and are just months away from crucial A-level, GCSE and Sats exams are missing having specialist teachers in front of them.”

Teaching unions urged the government to put more resources into giving school staff priority access to tests. The National Education Union called for mass testing for schools and colleges in areas with high levels of community transmission.

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said it had received more than 200 calls from members seeking help dealing with suspected cases, with most of those involving lack of access to tests.

The Association of School and College Leaders said it had seen similar numbers before the end of last week and reported “uncomfortable conversations” between schools and parents, frustrated by the testing system.

Paul Whiteman, the NAHT’s general secretary, said: “The obvious failure of the Covid-19 testing infrastructure puts the sustainable reopening of schools at serious risk and also means that pupils could be missing out on education unnecessarily.”

A government 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.

“If a positive case is confirmed in a school, swift action is being taken to ask those who have been in close contact to self-isolate, and Public Health England’s local health protection teams continue to support and advise schools in this situation.

“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.”

But Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the government needed to do more. “Heads have told me they find it extremely frustrating that they have made their schools ‘Covid secure’ but then find out it has been undone by the lack of tests.”

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