Majority of secondary schools see high take-up of Covid tests by pupils – poll

Pupils in England have returned to school for the first time in two months as part of the first stage of lockdown easing
Pupils in England have returned to school for the first time in two months as part of the first stage of lockdown easing (PA Wire)
18:35pm, Mon 08 Mar 2021
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More than half of secondary schools and colleges in England have seen nearly all their students opt in for voluntary on-site coronavirus tests as they returned to class, a survey suggests.

Nearly three in four (73%) secondary school heads said more than 90% of pupils had complied with face covering policies in classrooms, according to the snap poll by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).

But some heads reported lower compliance with masks, with 2% saying it was below 70%.

The early findings came as millions of pupils began to return to class after months of remote learning.

Children’s minister Vicky Ford said secondary school students in England will not be forced to wear face coverings in classrooms when they return, as some will be “anxious and nervous” about wearing them.

But she said secondary school and college pupils should be “strongly encouraged” to wear face coverings wherever social distancing cannot be maintained, including in class, as set out in Government guidance.

Secondary school pupils are also being asked to take three voluntary Covid-19 tests on site and one at home over the first fortnight. They will then be sent home-testing kits to use twice-weekly.

Primary school children are not being asked to carry out Covid-19 tests or wear face coverings.

Ms Ford sparked confusion on Monday after she said that a child who tests positive for Covid-19 with a lateral flow test but then subsequently receives a negative PCR result should not return to class.

But Downing Street confirmed that pupils who appear positive for Covid-19 in rapid tests taken at home, rather than at school, will receive a PCR test that could allow them to return to class.

Early indications suggest that many secondary schools and colleges are reporting a high take-up of coronavirus tests and pupils are largely following policies on wearing face coverings in classrooms.

A survey, of more than 700 secondary school and college leaders, found 54% reported a take-up of between 90% and 100% for rapid Covid-19 tests.

Nearly a quarter (24%) have seen a take-up of between 80% and 89% while take-up was below 60% in only 6% of schools, the poll found.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of ASCL, said the early indications were “very encouraging” and feedback suggests attendance is “good” in most schools.

He said: “The requirement to provide on-site Covid tests has been particularly onerous, and introducing face coverings in classrooms has opened up a minefield that they have had to navigate.

“We know schools have had to put a great deal of time and effort into obtaining parental consent for on-site Covid tests and that has clearly proved especially difficult in some places.

“Likewise, while most pupils and parents are supporting schools over the thorny issue of face coverings, it appears that some are not doing so.

“We would encourage all parents and pupils to follow their school’s rules on face coverings which are in line with public health guidance and are there for the good of everybody.”

Coronavirus schools (PA Wire)

The ASCL is providing members with a template letter that they can use in response to letters some schools have received objecting to the use of face coverings.

The letter says a school’s risk assessment could be undermined, health and safety problems created and there could be insurance ramifications if a high percentage of students choose not to wear face masks.

Gateacre School, a secondary school in Liverpool, has said it is considering sanctions for children who do not wear a face mask.

Headteacher Gareth Jones said there would be discussions with pupils and parents on how to enforce the rule.

There will be some who will be very anxious and nervous about doing so and that's why we understand that and that is why we have not made it mandatory but we have strongly encouraged this

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said they were hearing that attendance in primary schools was high.

On secondary schools, he added: “Organising and administering tests has certainly added another layer of complexity to the return and, because of that, not all pupils will be back in the classroom today.

“The Government’s muddled messaging about lateral flow tests and PCR tests has added confusion to that complexity, which will be frustrating for schools.”

Asked whether schools where there is not much mask-wearing should close, Ms Ford told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday: “No, I think that we should strongly encourage them to wear the masks, I think the vast majority of young people, they get this.

“But there will be some who will be very anxious and nervous about doing so and that’s why we understand that and that is why we have not made it mandatory but we have strongly encouraged this.”

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), called Ms Ford’s comments on face coverings ahead of the full reopening of schools “poor form”.

Speaking to Sky News, Dr Bousted said: “I think the Government ministers have to really think carefully. They have said to schools ‘we expect mask-wearing throughout secondary schools in the classroom and in the corridor’.

“If that’s what they expect, they should not be equivocating about it before it’s introduced. They should be supporting schools in ensuring that masks are worn.”

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