Headteachers and school governors have written a strongly worded letter to the prime minister “imploring” him to take personal charge of the crisis in Covid testing, warning that children’s return to education is being put at risk by failures in the system.
In an unusual move that underlines the urgency of the situation, the three organisations that represent school leadership in England leapfrogged the Department for Education and the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, to make a direct appeal to Boris Johnson to intervene.
As reports continued to mount of parents of symptomatic children and teachers struggling to access tests, one union leader warned that the lack of availability could lead to a “lockdown by default”, with thousands of pupils and staff sent home to self-isolate for a fortnight, leading to widespread staffing problems and closures.
The education secretary, meanwhile, giving evidence to MPs on the Commons education select committee, said schools should rely on their “unique” supply of testing kits, provided to all schools at the start of term.
“We’ve always been conscious that with children coming back into schools there is going to be a situation where people would need to have more access to testing, that is why we ensured deliveries of tests to every single school in England,” he said.
Unions have warned, however, that the 10 kits supplied to each school, regardless of size, are not enough and in some cases are already exhausted.
The National Association of Head Teachers, the Association of School and College Leaders and the National Governance Association told the prime minister they felt compelled to express “mounting concern” about the difficulties staff and pupils were facing in obtaining tests.
The two unions said they had received about 600 emails from members over four school days, with almost all reporting symptomatic staff and/or pupils who were struggling to access tests, with many complaining of problems contacting local public health teams.
A third teaching union, the NASUWT, wrote separately, warning that the situation in schools was “out of control”, with areas in local lockdown unable to cope with the demand for tests from teachers and other staff as well as pupils.
“Test delays cause further disruption to children’s education following the lockdown since March, and put pressure on staffing cover in schools and colleges,” the NAHT/ASCL letter says. “We are also receiving reports of difficulties in obtaining timely advice from local health protection teams when there are positive cases.
“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.”
The letter says there is a “deep sense of foreboding” about the system becoming more riddled with delays as more cases emerge. “This would be increasingly disruptive to children’s education and make staffing unsustainable.
“Schools and colleges are frustrated that having spent the summer painstakingly putting in place safety measures to enable reopening, they are immediately encountering a lack of testing and public health capacity.”
In a letter to the schools minister, Nick Gibb, NASUWT general secretary Patrick Roach said: “We have reports that schools are unable to cope with a situation that is increasingly out of control.
“In Salford, the local authority had in place a dedicated testing site for schools staff and pupils. However, the number of symptomatic pupils and staff has increased to such levels that the testing site has been unable to cope with demand and has stopped taking referrals from schools.”
Roach said there were “numerous other related examples from across the country”. In Bury, for example, the testing system had broken down, with an estimated 600 pupils self-isolating.
The ASCL’s general secretary, Geoff Barton, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that headteachers were being forced to decide that the “bubble has to stay at home” if a pupil or teacher in a year group had shown Covid-19 symptoms and could not get a test to prove they were negative. Protective bubbles in secondary schools can contain hundreds of pupils in a year group, who can be affected by one sick pupil.
“This will feel I think like lockdown by default – it will be more frustrating for parents because you can’t predict whether it is going to happen.”
Barton also quoted from a headteacher who had emailed him overnight to say they felt “hoodwinked” by the government. He summarised the email: “I feel that [after] everything we put in place – the one-way systems, the bubbles – now we are being tripped up by the fact that, whether it’s a child or a member of staff, they simply can’t get a test, and it’s leaving us in a position of me not knowing whether I can staff some of those lessons tomorrow, or indeed for the next two weeks. It’s infuriating.”
Asked to guarantee that staff and pupils could access tests locally within 48 hours, Williamson responded: “Schools are I think the only organisation that actually has a set of testing kits that’s been sent to them directly.”
The Department for Education told schools on Tuesday they could reorder a further 10 Covid test kits within 21 days. The DfE’s guidance states that individuals should first try to be tested through other routes, and that school testing kits “should only be offered in the exceptional circumstance an individual becomes symptomatic and you believe they may have barriers to accessing testing elsewhere”.
Williamson told MPs “there is a recognition that [testing capacity] needs to continue to grow,” and added: “This week I met with Baroness Harding from test and trace and the NHS, and she highlighted concerns schools have had in terms of turnaround, and to ensure that teachers are able to get tested as swiftly as possible, and they’re able to be in a position to be back teaching at the earliest possible stage.”