The government has announced that all secondary schools and colleges in England will be able to test more of their staff and students for Covid-19 in the first week of January.
These institutions will operate a staggered return, with all non-exam year groups having the first week of term online and face-to-face education starting again on 11 January.
Students in exam year groups, vulnerable children and children of key workers will be able to attend school in person from the start of term on 4 January, as well as pupils in primary, special and alternative provision schools and colleges.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said: “Rapid testing is a reliable and effective way to identify people without symptoms that we otherwise wouldn’t know about. By doing this we can help schools and colleges open safely after the Christmas break and ensure there is minimal disruption to our children’s education.”
However, the general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT), Paul Whiteman, said: “The government could not have created more of a shambolic situation. They have handed schools a confused and chaotic mess at the 11th hour.”
Whiteman said that the government’s instructions being given on the last day of term means school leaders have been left with no time to implement them. He also said primary schools seem to have been “ignored”, with many parents and school staff worried about transmission of the virus for younger children.
Whiteman continued: “Once again, an announcement that, if properly planned and executed could have been positive, is poised to fail. It is now urgent that the government confirms to schools the precise levels of support available to them to carry out testing.
“If education is the priority government says it is, they can’t keep layering extra responsibilities on schools. Time to support schools in delivering education rather than expecting them to support everything else.”
As usual the teaching profession will rise to the challenge because we care about our pupils and colleagues – Vicky Bingham, head of South Hampstead High School
The joint general secretaries of National Education Union (NEU), Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, similarly said operating a mass testing programme is “a ridiculous ask of professionals who are exhausted by the unreasonable demands, backed by legal threats, that they have been subjected to”.
Vicky Bingham, head of South Hampstead High School – an independent day school in London – said on Twitter that “whilst the timing and the communication are not ideal, the testing system is potentially a game changer for our students”.
She also said: “And as usual the teaching profession will rise to the challenge because we care about our pupils and colleagues.”
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