The testing fiasco has hit almost every school in the UK with up to 25,000 teachers in England already forced to stay at home and self-isolate.
Leaders of teaching unions warned of ‘lockdown by default’ yesterday as thousands of pupils are being sent home from lessons after showing symptoms of the virus.
The government’s prioritisation of NHS staff for tests means that pupils and teachers have been unable to get checked for the virus and have instead been forced out of the classroom.
Some schools have reported up to a fifth of their staff having to stay home, while unions warned the crisis was spinning out of control.
Headteachers have now called on the government to prioritise the education sector for tests as the crisis may make ‘staffing unsustainable’.
It was reported yesterday that at least 740 schools have shut or sent children home because of suspected outbreaks, with some sending whole year groups away.
However, some private schools are paying £120 to test symptomatic students and teachers.
One Guildford private school teacher told the Guardian: ‘If schools can afford to take the hit, private companies don’t have any problems providing tests.
On the other hand, state schools are fast using up the 10 testing kits supplied by government at the start of term – regardless of the school’s size.
Thousands of pupils are being sent home from school, sparking union fears of a ‘lockdown by default’
Today the Government will try to wrest control of the crisis by publishing a ‘priority list’ spelling out which groups should be offered swabs first.
But this is only likely to cause further controversy because schools – and their staff – are lower in the rankings than hospitals, care homes and the inhabitants of virus hotspots.
Robert Halfon, Tory chairman of the Commons’ education select committee, called for schools to have access to coronavirus tests within 48 hours amid the threat of further closures.
But Boris Johnson yesterday insisted that groups of children should only be sent home if there has been a positive test, rather than someone just developing symptoms.
The Prime Minister said it was important for teachers and parents to examine the Public Health England guidance about testing.
Reiterating Government policy, he told MPs on the liaison committee: ‘The reasons for sending such a class home, or a bubble home, would be if somebody tests positive.’
Teaching unions hit back last night, warning that schools are in the ‘impossible position’ of being forced to make their own decisions about who to send home due to delays in getting official health advice.
Robert Halfon has called for schools to have access to coronavirus tests within 48 hours
Current guidance, endorsed by Public Health England, states that in the event of a positive case, schools must work with local health protection teams and ‘send home those people who have been in close contact with the person who has tested positive’.
This is defined as a face-to-face conversation within one metre of someone, contact for more than 15 minutes within one to two metres, or travelling in a car with an infected person. But Julie McCulloch, of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: ‘Schools are having to make what is essentially a public health decision.’
Mary Bousted, of the National Education Union, said: ‘Being able to acquire a test result – positive or otherwise – is a rather large assumption in the Prime Minister’s thinking.’
The Department for Education stepped in and launched a national helpline for schools to report positive virus cases. Schools have now been told that instead of contacting local public health teams, from today there will be a ‘dedicated’ advice service.
Earlier yesterday, three unions wrote to Mr Johnson, urging him to ‘personally take charge’ of the crisis.
Leaders of ASCL, the National Association of Head Teachers and the National Governance Association warned that nearly every school in the country is experiencing difficulties in getting tests – and they said they had a ‘deep sense of foreboding’ that this would get worse.
A survey of 6,700 teachers in England by the app Teacher Tapp found that 4 per cent were off for Covid-related reasons, according to The Guardian. That would equate to around 25,000 teachers nationally.