Schools warned of 'long, hard winter' ahead amid Covid testing chaos

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

Schools are facing up to a “long, hard winter” ahead as Covid-19 testing delays and rising infection rates have already seen a spike in the numbers of pupils being sent home.

Barely three weeks into term and the number of schools not fully open due to Covid-19 has jumped from one per cent on September 10 to four per cent on September 17.

Furthermore, a survey by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has found that four in five schools have children isolating because they cannot access a Covid-19 test.

The survey on September 17 involved 736 school leaders and found that 82 per cent of schools have children currently not attending because they cannot access a test, while 87 per cent have children stuck at home because they are waiting for test results.

Furthermore, 45 per cent of schools have staff currently not at work because they cannot access a test, and 60 per cent have staff at home because they are waiting for results.

It comes after the children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, estimated that one in 20 children – roughly 400,000 – were out of school on any one day due to Covid-19-related reasons. Speaking to the BBC (2020), she called for “extra clarity from the government in terms of who does need to not be in school if there are symptoms”.

Official Department for Education (DfE, 2020) statistics state that 94 per cent of state-funded schools were fully open on September 17 – “fully open” is defined as being able to “provide face-to-face teaching for all pupils on roll for the whole school day and that they have not asked a group of pupils to self-isolate”.

Four per cent of schools said they were not fully open due to suspected or confirmed cases of Covid-19. This is up from one per cent on September 10.

The DfE estimates that 87 per cent of all state school pupils were in attendance on September 17, down from 88 per cent on September 10.

Given the rising cases of Covid-19 and the delays in accessing tests and test results, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said it was “a great relief” that the figures were not worse.

On Tuesday (September 22), general secretary Geoff Barton said: “Under the circumstances of rising infection rates in the community, and severe problems with the Covid testing system, (the figures are) not at all surprising. Frankly, it is a great relief that the situation is not a lot worse.

“Schools are working incredibly hard to manage this very difficult situation, and leaders tell us that there is often little time left in the day for anything other than dealing with symptomatic or positive cases, and navigating the complexities of the public health system.

“This intensity will be hard to sustain over many weeks and months and action is needed to better support schools.

“The Covid testing system hasn’t been adequate and capacity has to improve so that tests can be obtained quickly. And, across society, we have a responsibility individually to behave in a way that reduces the risk of transmission and brings the infection rate down. This will help to keep schools open and minimise disruption to children’s education in what is clearly going to be a long, hard winter. We all need to do our bit.”

It comes as teaching, support staff and school leadership unions continue to lobby government for action over delays in its testing system, among other issues.

Support staff unions GMB, Unite and UNISON this week wrote to education secretary Gavin Williamson demanding the government give all school staff priority testing, reduce the size of pupil bubbles and make face coverings compulsory on school buses. Jon Richards, head of education at UNISON writes for Headteacher Update this week on the issue (2020).

And the National Education Union (NEU) wrote to the prime minister on Sunday (September 20) urging him to put in place a “plan B” for education given the rising infection rates across the country.

In the letter, the NEU warns that the strain on schools of having so many pupils and staff in limbo waiting on tests or test results will only get worse as the autumn term continues.

The letter adds: “We hope that you will be able to get this situation under control quickly but, if you cannot, then we believe that you will have to take steps to reduce wider school opening in these areas to help get R below 1.”

The NAHT survey, meanwhile, also found that of those schools who have had to send pupils home due to suspected or confirmed cases of Covid-19 so far this term, 70 per cent have sent home individual pupils only. Seven per cent have sent home whole classes, while five per cent have sent home whole year groups.

A total of 14 per cent of the respondents have had confirmed cases of Covid-19 in their schools since the start of term.

Paul Whiteman, NAHT general secretary, has also written to the prime minister to raise his concerns about the impact that a lack of access to Covid-19 tests is having on schools. He said the situation is becoming “increasingly disruptive and unsustainable”.

He told SecEd: “Tests for Covid-19 need to be readily available for everyone so that pupils and staff who get negative results can get back into school quickly. But we are hearing the same thing repeatedly from our members across the country – chaos is being caused by the inability of staff and families to successfully get tested when they display symptoms. This means schools are struggling with staffing, have children missing school, and ultimately that children’s education is being needlessly disrupted.

“The government assured us that testing would be ready for schools re-opening – it was one of their own key safety requirements to have in place to enable children and teachers to return. It is in no way unpredictable or surprising that the demand for Covid-19 tests would spike when schools reopened more widely this term. And yet the system is in chaos. The government has failed schools and children. It is unacceptable for this to happen when schools have put so much effort into getting their part of the plan right, and when pupils have had to endure so much uncertainty and disruption already.”

  • BBC: One-in-20 pupils at home with lockdown-related issues, September 2020:
  • DfE: Week 38: Attendance in education and early years settings during the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, September 22, 2020:
  • Richards: Test & trace: A catalogue of broken promises, Headteacher Update, September 2020:

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