Pressure builds over inconsistent school safety measures and Covid-19 testing problems

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

​Some schools are failing to implement consistent Covid-19 safety measures, including social distancing and enhanced cleaning, while on-going delays to track and trace are putting school leaders in an “impossible situation”.

The Department for Education (DfE) has come under pressure to act following differing concerns raised by teaching and leadership unions.

On Monday (September 14), the NASUWT teaching union wrote to education secretary Gavin Williamson to raise concerns after receiving reports from its members about schools cutting corners on Covid-19 safety measures.

It warns Mr Williamson that the lack of additional funding for schools is leading to critical decisions over cleaning and PPE being made on the basis of cost.

And then on Tuesday (September 15), in a letter to the prime minister, school leaders expressed their alarm at the difficulties they are facing in obtaining Covid tests and accessing “timely advice” from local health protection teams when responding to positive cases.

The letter – from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), and National Governance Association – warns that difficulties in accessing Covid tests and delays to getting results are causing “further disruption to children’s education”.

ASCL says that between September 9 and 14 it received 276 contacts from its members about test and trace, with 264 of these struggling to access tests.

The joint letter states: “Schools and colleges are frustrated that having spent the summer painstakingly putting in place safety measures to enable re-opening, they are immediately encountering a lack of testing and public health capacity.

“But this frustration is overshadowed by a deep sense of foreboding about the potential for the system to become ever-more riddled with delays as more cases emerge. This would be increasingly disruptive to children’s education and make staffing unsustainable.”

School leaders are also reporting problems in getting “timely advice” from local health protection teams when dealing with positive cases. The letter adds: “Schools are left in a position of either leaving close contacts of the infected person in school while they wait for guidance, or making a public health call themselves and deciding on who to send home. This places leaders in an impossible situation.”

Meanwhile, an online survey carried out by NASUWT between September 3 and 13 has raised concerns that some schools are not implementing consistent Covid-19 safety protocols.

The survey of 929 teachers found that 33 per cent reported no consistent social distancing measures in their school, while 30 per cent said there were no enhanced cleaning processes. Furthermore, 18 per cent said that their school had not put hand sanitiser in all classrooms, while 24 per cent said there were no controls over the flow of staff and students, into, out of and around the school.

Other problems being raised by the teachers include the depletion of staff numbers due to illness and self-isolation requirements – something which the NASUWT says is being exacerbated by the delays in the test and trace system.

Only 29 per cent of the teachers said that their school’s Covid-19 safety measures were being consistently applied, while only 23 per cent felt they were “sufficient and effective”.

In the letter, NASUWT general secretary Dr Patrick Roach said that the lack of additional funding for schools is leading to critical decisions over cleaning and PPE being made “on the basis of cost rather than health and safety considerations”.

He writes: “With rising numbers of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the wider community, our members are deeply concerned that, in the absence of effective control measures, there is increased risk of Covid-19 transmission within schools. We further note with concern that your department is unable to provide any evidence on the effectiveness of the risk control measures recommended in your guidance to schools.

“The NASUWT seeks confirmation from you as to the steps you will now take to address (these) concerns. The evidence from our preliminary polling raises further concerns about the urgent need for stronger protections to be introduced to ensure the Covid-secure working practices that the government has promised.”

The DfE has also come under pressure from the National Education Union (NEU) after the spike in Covid-19 cases since September 1.

A letter from the NEU on September 10 urged the government to improve the availability of testing and the efficiency of the test track trace programme, to make “emergency efforts” to reduce class sizes, and to source new spaces for schools to enable them to be less crowded.

The NEU also wants a guarantee that all school health and safety costs will be reimbursed centrally.

Kevin Courtney and Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretaries of the NEU, said: “School and college leaders, teachers and other staff are worried about access to tests, with many being advised to travel hundreds of miles to obtain one. This is not a sustainable way of coping with outbreaks. Schools and colleges must have quick access to trace, track and test, and not be continually confronted with obstacles that should have been resolved months ago.”

Elsewhere this week, the first official attendance figures for this term show that around 88 per cent of state school pupils attended school on September 10, while 99.9 per cent of state schools were open on the same day.

Around 92 per cent of schools were fully open, meaning they delivered face-to-face teaching for all pupils on roll. The report states: “For most schools that reported they were not fully open, this was due to non-Covid-19 related reasons. Of all schools that responded, one per cent said they were not fully open due to suspected or confirmed cases of Covid-19.”

A DfE statement, published on Tuesday (September 15), said: “The DfE is working closely with all schools that are not fully open to ensure remote education is in place for the children who are unable to attend in person, and to ensure schools are only sending those home to self-isolate who have had close contact with a confirmed case of coronavirus.

“Less than 0.1 per cent of schools are completely closed, with local public health protection teams working to support them to reopen as soon as possible. These temporary closures reflect exceptional circumstances such as cases among staff members at very small schools.”

Commenting on the statistics, Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary, said: “It’s great to see that so many young people are back in the classroom, with their teachers and with their friends. Despite the government’s u-turns and last minute changes, schools have stuck to their task and their efforts have clearly given confidence to parents and families.

"But we should not take anything for granted. Problems accessing tests for those staff and families displaying Covid symptoms is causing chaos for schools right now and could jeopardise attendance remaining high."

  • DfE: Week 37: Attendance in education and early years settings during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, September 15, 2020:

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