Mass testing plan ‘may do more harm than good’, council tells schools

School leaders say the government must not expect schools themselves to run on-site daily testing.

A council has told its schools not to rush into rolling out mass testing because “hastily” putting together plans without having “sufficient time to prepare may ultimately do more harm than good”.

In a letter sent to schools yesterday, seen by Schools Week, East Sussex council and the public health director for the area says the government’s mass testing plans have “great potential benefit” in keeping pupils in school.

Trying to implement something hastily without sufficient time to prepare may ultimately do more harm than good

However the letter, signed by the council’s children services director and the region’s director of public health, says “due to the lack of detail” on proposals and the “very short timescales involved we have urged caution with our schools and suggested that they do not rush into drawing up plans”.

It puts the council at loggerheads with the government which says while testing is optional, it is “strongly advised”.

Announcement of the scheme – in the last week of term – caused uproar in the sector, with unions warning it will be “inoperable for most schools”.

The council told its schools: “As you will appreciate, trying to implement something hastily without sufficient time to prepare, may ultimately do more harm than good.”

The council reminded schools there’s no requirement for pupils to have a test in order to return in January, and that they are “confident the procedures schools have already implemented are robust and should provide families with reassurance”.

The letter added: “Our aim is to work with schools in order to deliver serial testing for pupils and staff in a well-planned and suitably resourced way so that we can minimise disruption to children and young people’s learning in the new year.”

Council staff plan to meet with school representatives on January 4 to “review any new guidance that is issued over the Christmas period”.

It comes amid further concern that schools won’t reopen on time next term after a surge in cases.

The TES reported yesterday a government meeting to discuss schools’ return was postponed and will now take place after Christmas.

On Monday, prime minister Boris Johnson softened his stance on schools’ return. He said he wants schools to return in a staggered way at the beginning of January “if we possibly can”, but added the government will “keep things under constant review”.

Scientists are investigating whether a new strain of the coronavirus spreads more easily in children.

A coalition of organisations – including unions, the Church of England, the National Governance Association and the Independent Schools Council – have joined together to criticise the mass testing plans.

A letter to the government stated the “chaotic and rushed nature” of the announcement means schools will “not be in a position to carry this out in a safe and effective manner”.

A government official also admitted yesterday the lateral flow tests set to be used under the scheme will deliver both false negatives and positives, amid growing concerns over their accuracy.

East Sussex appears to be the first council to advise its schools not to worry about implementing the testing scheme.

Ministers have taken a hard line against any dissenters to its national guidance. Greenwich Council withdrew its advice for schools to close early for Christmas amid surge infection rates after education secretary Gavin Williamson challenged the decision using emergency Covid legal powers.

However the government has made clear that mass testing is not mandatory.

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