Portsmouth education leaders welcome mass testing but are left ‘staggered’ at timing of planned phased return

THE news that secondary school pupils are to have a phased return to school in January to allow the implementation of mass testing has been welcomed by education leaders – but they have been left ‘staggered’ by the timing of the announcement.

Thursday, 17th December 2020, 5:01 pm

While Year 11 and 13 pupils will return to schools as planned, other secondary school children will have a phased return with online lessons for students not in school.

The aim is to reduce rising transmission rates in secondary schools and improve student attendance with 15 per cent of pupils across the country missing school last week.

Confirming the plans a government spokesman said: ‘The start of term won’t be delayed but what we are doing is asking secondary schools and colleges to operate a staggered return supported by full-time remote education during the first week of term with in-person teaching in full starting on January 11.’

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Priory School headteacher Stewart Vaughan welcomes the opportunity to introduce mass testing in schools but has been left 'staggered' by the timing of the announcement of the phased return of pupils in January. Picture: Sarah Standing

It’s proposed that teachers will be tested on a weekly basis and any students who have been in contact with a positive case will be offered seven days of daily testing. However with the announcement being made only 24 hours before the end of term schools now face a massive logistical challenge to officially inform parents and prepare online lessons and resources.

Priory School headteacher Stewart Vaughan said: ‘We welcome the news of widespread testing. This should mean that more students and staff can be in school without the interruption to their education caused by having to isolate - that appears to be excellent news. We have been asking for testing in schools for months as all available information pointed to this time of year being very difficult.

‘If it is up to us to manage this we will find a way to make this work, as we have at all stages of this crisis but, yet again, the timing and nature of this vital communication has been staggeringly unhelpful’.

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Pupils face a phased return to secondary school to allow headteachers time to implement plans for mass Covid testing in schools.

The principle behind a staggered return to allow mass testing has been welcomed by Portsmouth teacher and National Education Union president Amanda Martin but the union has criticised the timing and the practicalities of its implementation.

Ms Martin said: ‘The NEU was amongst the first to ask for mass testing in schools and believe it’s absolutely needed if we are to keep schools and colleges as Covid safe as possible. But today’s announcement by government, made at the end of term, demonstrates ministerial panic rather than rational and responsible action and a clear strategy in response to the exponential rise in Covid-19 infection rates amongst secondary school pupils.

A key concern is the recruitment and training of staff to carry out testing.

Ms Martin added: ‘It appears that across the country the government is asking secondary school leaders to contact, train and deploy an army of volunteers to administer testing to the whole of England’s secondary school population. Armed with a 30-minute training video they are being asked to administer tests to adolescents – who may have their own views about what is quite an invasive procedure.’

While Portsmouth City Council are still awaiting the finer details of the plan, cabinet member for education Cllr Suzy Horton welcomed the underlying principle of mass testing.

Cllr Horton said: ‘My initial reaction is that if it is going to help headteachers to implement more testing in schools then it seems a sensible thing to do. Anything that in the long-term can help schools to stay open is a good thing.

‘It’s important to stress this is not an extension to pupils’ holiday as those students not in school will be doing online lessons.’

Primary school pupils will be expected to return to school as planned on the first day of term.

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