The government has this week announced mass testing in schools from January 4. The announcement – in the last week of term – has caused uproar in the sector, with unions claiming the plans are “inoperable”.

Here’s everything you need to know about the plans.


1. Mass testing ‘opportunity’ for all secondary schools…

All schools with secondary-age pupils will be “offered the opportunity” to test pupils from the week of January 4 (the first week back after Xmas).

This includes special schools and alternative provision. The government “will encourage as many as possible to take up the offer”.


2. …but running the tests isn’t mandatory

Leaders were told at a Department for Education webinar on the plans today that testing is not mandatory.

A DfE press release published yesterday also stated: “Testing will be optional but strongly encouraged, particularly in areas of higher prevalence of the virus. Consent will be required from the student or parent as appropriate.”

Guidance states that schools “choosing not to take up this offer of asymptomatic testing” should still follow the staggered return rules.

Unions have warned that schools should not be put under any pressure to do the mass testing if leaders feel it’s not possible.


3. Staggered return to on-site teaching

In secondary schools, vulnerable children, the children of critical workers and pupils in exam years are expected to return as usual after the Christmas break and should be “prioritised” for testing. This will be done with lateral flow tests that can provide results within an hour.

All other secondary pupils should not attend school that week, and instead “must be provided with remote education until January 11 when they should return to school and resume face-to-face attendance”.

Pupils will not need to have had a test in order to return to school on January 11.

When asked about the legal status of the guidance, the DfE confirmed it was non-statutory, but would not say whether any action would be taken against schools that don’t follow it.

The DfE this week took legal action against a council that asked its schools to move to remote learning this week (which went against government guidance).


4. All pupils in at primary, AP and special schools

Primaries should resume on-site provision as planned from their first day of term and allow all pupils to attend as they have since the start of the school year.

The guidance also states that “all specialist settings and alternative provision schools should plan for full-time on-site provision for all pupils from the start of term”.

Those with secondary-age children are “encouraged to take up the offer to test their pupils”.


5. No testing at primary schools…yet

Secondary schools are being prioritised under the mass testing regime because of higher infection rates.

But the DfE has said primary schools will be supported to roll out testing “as quickly as possible” over the spring term.


6. There’s also wider testing for teachers

As well as the mass testing of pupils at the start of term, there’s been two more testing programmes announced this week: schools can run weekly testing for staff, as well as daily testing for students and staff identified as close contacts of those that have tested positive.

Testing is voluntary, but people are “strongly encouraged” to take part. Currently this applies just to secondary schools, which will be issued with the rapid tests and personal protective equipment (PPE) “from the beginning of January”.

Anyone showing symptoms of coronavirus who has a negative result from a rapid test will be required to self-isolate until the result from a lab-based polymerise chain reaction (PCR) test is known.


7. How will mass testing work?

The government wants “as many secondary pupils as possible” to be tested in the first week back, before the more regular testing of staff and pupils comes into effect.

This will involve pupils having two tests. If the pupil’s first test is positive, they should immediately self-isolate and have this positive test confirmed with a standard PCR test (which take more time because they are usually processed in a laboratory).

If the pupil’s first test is negative, they should be tested again 3 days later. If this test is positive, they should self-isolate and confirm this with a PCR test.

The department wants schools to “encourage” testing by “ensuring pupils and parents are aware of the benefits… Schools should use existing relationships to drive take-up wherever possible”.

However, testing “may not be feasible for some children, particularly some vulnerable children, for reasons of feasibility or consent”.


8. Schools can take an inset day to set up

Schools’ responsibilities for contract tracing ends on December 23, meaning “teachers should be able to get the break that they deserve before resuming work in the new term”, the guidance states. (Although schools minister Nick Gibb appears to have contradicted this statement today).

However, schools can use an extra INSET day on January 4 to “prepare to deliver the testing”. More detailed operational guidance is expected to be published next week.


9. Who will do the tests?

The guidance states schools and trusts, supported by councils, will need to “ provide a small team to support the work”.

“We recommend that this includes one to two members of staff with others being either volunteers (for example governors) or agency staff brought in for this purpose.”

“Reasonable” workforce costs of state-funded schools will be reimbursed. Training for staff will mostly be online.

The army will also support planning. Schools Week understands around 200 DfE staff will work over the Christmas break to assist with preparations for the programme.


10. ‘Prioritise teachers’ time’ for remote learning

Gibb said today that teachers would not be expected to administer the tests, stating they were already “fully occupied” with teaching and remote education.

Secondary schools have been told to follow remote education expectations for all those pupils learning at home in the first week back, which includes the requirement to provide at least four hours of remote education per day.

But the guidance adds: “It is recognised that the capacity within schools may be impacted, particularly when the rapid asymptomatic testing programme first rolls out. Schools should prioritise protecting teaching staff’s time so that they can meet remote education expectations for their pupils.”


11. Put on more buses to get kids in for tests

The guidance states transport arrangements need to be “sufficiently flexible” during this period.

To allow pupils to arrive and leave for tests during the day, the guidance states schools and councils “may wish to consider whether there is scope to run additional services during the first week of term”

“For some children, it will not be possible to arrive and leave around scheduled test appointment times. Where necessary, pupils may attend on-site provision on the day of their test, until such time as dedicated transport is available. Where those pupils test positive, schools should follow the guidance set out in the forthcoming operational testing guidance.”

12. Delay to restarting PE

The guidance states sport and physical education should only resume from January 11, although schools can continue to offer before and after-school activities for pupils eligible to attend on-site provision.