18 December, 2020
On 17 December 2020, the Government confirmed that all secondary schools and colleges in England will be able to test more of their staff and students, from the first week in January 2021. We understand that testing will be optional and will require student/ parent consent, however, it is strongly encouraged by the Government.
In explaining their intention, the Government has said that this latest development is part of a bid to keep education available for staff and students and help to stop the spread of COVID-19. It is hoped by the Government this this testing will help to identify students who may have contracted the virus but are asymptomatic (which is estimated as affecting 1 in 3 pupils).
In making the announcement, the Government confirmed that students in exam year groups, vulnerable children and children of critical workers will all attend school or college in person from the start of term, as will all students in primary, special and alternative provision schools, and colleges.
As many in the education sector will be aware, secondary schools and colleges will operate a staggered return, offering all non-exam year groups full-time remote education, during the first week of term, with face-to-face education for all starting on 11 January 2021.
The Government have confirmed schools and colleges will be able to establish testing to offer students two rapid tests, three days apart, with positive results confirmed by a lab-based PCR test. What remains unclear is how schools and colleges will be expected to set up and prepare staff to support this latest change, especially given that many schools and colleges are now due to break up for Christmas.
What we do know is that armed forces personnel will directly support through planning with schools and colleges; 'reasonable' workforce costs will be reimbursed and students attending face-to-face education in the first week of term will be offered the first testing dates.
The main concern for many in the education sector will now be preparing to implement this latest piece of guidance, in the absence of any detailed direction or indication of how this many affect staff.
From an employment law perspective, a significant question is now posed about the expectations existing school staff. For the majority, this requirement will be significantly outside of their previous experience and the expectations listed in their job description. Encompassed in this is the personal vulnerability existing staff may feel, as a result of needing to determine whether or not a pupil is safe to be in the school building. We also expect that this announcement may raise further concerns, by existing staff, about the measures being taken to protect their health and safety.
School leaders now face the unenviable task of determining how exactly to manage the testing process, alongside staff relations. With guidance promised in the near future, we hope that this clarifies some of the question marks that now hang over the education sector during the Christmas period.