NEU advice for members on proposed mass testing in schools and colleges

Where can I find more information on the system?

Full details are set out in the NHS Guide Covid-19 Testing Programme – Schools and Colleges Handbook.  An initial DFE questions and answers is available here.

Where can I read the NEU joint statement with other unions and employer bodies?

Go here to read the joint statement which is particularly aimed at offering support to schools and colleges which feel unable to implement the plans or believe it would be unsafe to seek to do so.

What is the proposed system?

The programme will apply to all secondary schools, plus colleges with students aged 16-19, and to special schools in respect of secondary age pupils. There are plans to extend this to the primary sector, but with no firm dates yet.

All staff will be offered voluntary weekly Covid-19 screening ‘lateral flow’ tests to identify anyone who has the virus and may be asymptomatic.

Students and staff will also be able to access voluntary ‘serial testing’ if one of their contacts in school or college tests positive, allowing them to stay in education by taking a daily test in the morning for seven school/college days. 

The tests will be provided and processed in the school or college. Testing kits, materials and training materials will be provided at no cost.  NHS Test and Trace will provide reimbursement of reasonable workforce support costs.

When does it start?

The testing programme will start from 4 January onwards.

Schools and colleges are being asked to move to remote working for the week of 4 January, except for Y11/13 and vulnerable/key worker children.  (As noted above this does not apply to primary schools which are expected to reopen in full on 4 January.)

Testing for students will start with those actually in school/college, then moving on to offer tests to the remainder of the students during the course of the week.

Kits will be supplied by 4 January but the DFE accepts that schools and colleges can start testing later than this if they feel they can't start immediately. They will, however, be expected to open fully on 11 January even if the testing programme hasn't started.

Is being tested mandatory?

Tests are not mandatory for students or staff.  They can return to school or college on the due date even if not tested.

The National Education Union (NEU) does, however, encourage its members to be tested and similarly encourages parents, carers and students.

What is NEU advice if a member of staff tests positive after a weekly test? 

Where a positive case or cases are picked up through the weekly testing process for staff, we recommend that all contacts of these positive cases should self-isolate.  Lateral flow testing  should be seen as a helpful additional measure to reduce risk, but the tests are far from totally accurate. Therefore, relying on them to allow staff and pupils who have been in contact with a positive case to continue to go into school is an unnecessary risk.   

Members should not be expected to sign consent forms accepting that they do not isolate in these circumstances. 

Who will run the tests?

The DFE says that the system will be run on site by staff, external volunteers (eg parents or retired staff) or additional paid temporary agency/contract staff.

The NEU believes that staff participation in carrying out the tests should be voluntary, as most staff working in a school or college will not be contractually required to carry out most of the tasks contained in the workplace roles listed in the NHS Guidance (see page 13).
Notwithstanding the contractual situation, many staff will also be unhappy about volunteering to perform specific tasks on their own merits, e.g.: 

Test Assistant - "Collects completed swabs and pass them to the Processor. Ensures cleaning of swabbing bays." 

Processor - "Prepares test sample for analysis, conducts processing of Lateral Flow Device (LFD) and interprets result. Provides results to Results Recorder. Ensures cleaning of processing bays."

If your school or college try to coerce you into taking part in any aspect of the testing programme with which you are uncomfortable, please speak to your NEU workplace Rep, or in the absence of a Rep, your NEU District office.

The DfE has said that it recognises that staff cannot both deliver remote teaching and run testing, and that schools may need to use volunteers or temporary staff.

There are seven roles associated with the process – these are described in the handbook and some of them can be carried out by the same person.

Introductory training webinars for staff will be provided and will also be available on-line for those who cannot attend the live sessions.

The NEU will support members to ensure that participation in administering tests is voluntary and safety is maintained.  The NEU advises members who are clinically extremely vulnerable(CEV) or clinically vulnerable (CV) against being involved in administering the tests.

The DfE recognises that safeguarding considerations may prevent admitting volunteers in the week of 4 January.

How will the testing system operate?

Tests will usually be carried out as a supervised self-test, but some students may be assisted by the trained staff or volunteers.

Lateral flow testing involves a swab of the nose and throat to collect a sample, which is then inserted into a tube of liquid for a short time. Drops of liquid are added to the test strip and after about half an hour a result will be shown. There is no need to send samples to a lab for analysis. Results are available after approximately 30 minutes.

Schools and colleges will have to set up their testing site, details on how to do this are in the handbook - there are stipulations in relation to ventilation, lighting, type of flooring, and space, with clear divisions needed between the swabbing and processing area. 

What is the NEU response?

The NEU welcomes the mass testing scheme as a much needed, if belated measure which will help manage the risk to staff, students and their families.  However, its implementation is a huge logistical challenge just as term ends. Schools now need to plan the process, set up a test site and staff the system, ensuring training and protection for those involved.

It is more than six months since the NEU outlined five tests for Covid-19 safety which included comprehensive access to regular testing for children and staff to stop schools and colleges becoming Covid-19 hot spots. This measure should have been implemented earlier, before secondary school students became one of the motors of the second wave.

What should I do if I come under pressure to become involved in administering the tests, or to participate in the seven-day testing regime if I'm a contact of a confirmed case?

Both should be undertaken on a voluntary basis, whether you are a teacher or support staff member.  Undertaking such a procedure – which does carry risks – should only be done if staff are willing to do so, have been provided with PPE, including training in its use and disposal, and feel confident, having gone through the training process.  The NEU advises that members who are the contact of a positive case should not participate in serial testing and should instead self-isolate in accordance with Government guidelines.

Where pressure is applied, NEU members should respond collectively to the head teacher/principal and seek the support of the branch/district secretary if necessary.

Is it advisable for ​clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) or clinically vulnerable (CV) staff to volunteer to administer/supervise the tests?

The NEU would advise extreme caution.  CEV staff should be working from home anyway, following an individual risk assessment.  If they choose to be in school, we advise that they should not be part of the team involved in administering the tests and should undertake safer roles.

 We would also advise that CV staff should not take on this work either.  Individual risk assessments for CEV and CV staff should be revised to reflect the fact that this activity is happening on site and to ensure that all vulnerable staff are, so far as is possible, kept away from the testing area.

Is it advisable for CEV or CV staff to agree to participate in the seven-day serial testing regime if they are a contact of a confirmed case in school/college and would otherwise have to self-isolate?

No, we don't advise any member to take this option if they are a contact of a positive case and for clinically vulnerable or clinically extremely vulnerable members the risks are of course much greater. The safest option is to opt to self-isolate as per Government guidelines.

How do schools go about ensuring parental consent for the serial tests?

The NHS handbook includes guidance on obtaining consent. A consent template is provided to cover consent for testing, use of personal information to register students, and visibility/communication of positive results to students.

If I receive a self-isolation notification via the NHS Test and Trace app, or if a close contact of mine out of school tests positive, do I still need to self-isolate or can I continue to attend school/college and use the seven-day serial testing as long as I test negative each day?

The NHS handbook makes clear that pupils and staff will be able to take part in seven-day serial testing if they are a close contact of a positive case in school or college, so if the contact is outside of school or college then you will need to self-isolate in the usual way.

How does this new system affect the school/college Covid-19 risk assessment?

Risk assessment is a dynamic process and needs to be kept under regular review, for example when circumstances change, and additional hazards become apparent. Cleaning and hygiene measures, in particular, will need to be revised.   Staff should be consulted on proposed changes and there is a legal requirement to consult health and safety reps. Individual risk assessments for vulnerable staff will also need to be updated to include any new measures necessary to keep staff safe.  See  Coronavirus: school/college risk assessment | NEU

Does the requirement for schools and colleges to maintain a voluntary approach to the delivery of testing also extends to support staff?

Yes. Many support staff will have, as part of their job description, the requirement to administer medication to pupils, but that expectation must not be extended to cover mandated involvement in the new Covid-19 testing programme.

How do supply staff fit in to the testing plan?

If they are on long term assignments, they should be included in the testing arrangements for all staff.  When working on a daily basis, they could be offered testing on arrival and on subsequent days.  This arrangement would offer more protection than no testing.  Where positive tests are picked up, we would expect that supply staff continue to be paid for the assignment.

How should testing operate on multiple sites?

Arrangements should be part of a revised risk assessment.  Additional movement between sites for testing purposes will lead to more mixing and more likelihood of infection.  Where possible, a testing facility could be established on each site with staff and students always remaining on the same site, including FE students who may also be spending time at employer workplaces.