"We are not medical centres" - Yorkshire head teachers speak out about how covid testing will challenge schools

Head teachers in Yorkshire have opened up about the increased pressures faced by schools as they prepare for mass testing, Ruth Dacey reports.

The Government has failed to take into account the sheer size and scale of the ‘required’ mass testing of pupils, head teachers across the region have said.

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Extra support , including more volunteers, is needed to help schools roll out ‘operable’ mass testing of pupils, which is now required across the region, Paul McIntosh a head teacher from a secondary school in North Yorkshire has warned.

It was announced this week students in exam years in secondary school will now return from 11 January, with other secondary and college students going back a week later, to allow schools and colleges to make preparations for the widespread testing of pupils and staff. Photo credit: Danny Lawson/ PA

It comes after Gavin Williamson told Sky News he is "absolutely confident" that secondary schools will be able to carry out mass testing with an extra week to prepare.

The education secretary announced yesterday (December 30) that the phased reopening of secondary schools and colleges will be pushed back by a week, a move that was labelled a "last-minute mess" by teachers.

Students in exam years will now return from 11 January, with other secondary and college students going back a week later, to allow schools and colleges to make preparations for the widespread testing of pupils and staff.

Mr McIntosh, the acting headteacher of King James’s School, in Knaresborough, has urged the Government to provide more detailed plans as he criticised the "last minute" and "unrealistic nature" of government announcements for schools in England.

Pictured, Paul McIntosh, the acting headteacher of King James’s School, in Knaresborough.

Mr McIntosh, who stepped into the acting head role at the beginning of October this year, told The Yorkshire Post: "The testing is a good thing but you have to remember we are not medical centres we are schools.

"If this is to be set-up we need more support, more detail, which I’m hoping is going to come out pretty soon."

He added: "The frustrating thing for headteachers and teachers is the last minute nature of announcements with a lack of detail and then expecting schools to look at it.

"The teaching community is finding stuff out on BBC news on twitter - it doesn’t take much to email headteachers and say this is the plan - here is some detail.

The Government have said that £78m of extra funding, equipment such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and support from the military would help get the mass testing programmes for pupils set up.

"What happens is the announcements come out - you are there dealing with the headlines and the details follow - and then often follow when there is such a tight time scale trying to implement them is really challenging."

At the most “challenging point” for King James’s School, which caters for 1,500 students, 15 staff, out of 100, were off the week before and after the October half-term, due to positive cases, with the school “coming close to having to close”.

If numbers reached similar levels again he was concerned there wouldn’t be enough volunteers to help with the mass testing, Mr McIntosh said.

He said the Government hadn’t factored in school procedures needed for taking on volunteers, including DBS checks to ensure it can make correct decisions on employment to ensure it children are kept safe.

He said: "If we get the number of cases we got around the October half-term wise - we will need a lot of volunteers to effectively test all the kids.

"Otherwise you can imagine that you have two or three cases in each year group - each case might have a close contact with 50 or 60 students - you work out those numbers and having to test them over a period of time - that is a logistical big operation."

He added that the Government's commitment to providing 1,500 military personnel to support more than 3,400 schools, was an "unrealistic number" to significantly help.

"It doesn’t take the brain of Britain to work out if you spread 1,500 people out across all the secondary schools in the country - it works out about half an army person per school if that," Mr McIntosh said.

Meanwhile Richard Sheriff, executive headteacher of Harrogate Grammar School, said regular testing could be key to minimising classroom disruptions but criticised the government for announcing the plans just days before the Christmas break.

“Testing and the delayed return is a realistic program,” he said, “but it still puts a huge amount of pressure on schools.

“We are very sympathetic to the government as they deal with a pandemic, however, the way information on testing was circulated was very, very unfortunate and caused a lot of distress.

“We need reassurances in the physical arrangements for testing, including extra space and support on the ground to make it happen.”

Mr Williamson confirmed on Sky News that £78m of extra funding, equipment such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and support from the military would help get the programmes set up.

He said: "There’s absolutely no reason that schools won’t be ready."

He added: "In terms of secondary year groups, the reason that we have moved that [term start] back is so we give all schools, every single school, every single college that teaches secondary-age pupils, the opportunity to roll out a mass testing regime, making sure we root out this coronavirus.

"It’s not just about making it safer for pupils, it’s not just about making it safer for those who work in schools, but actually it’s about rooting out coronavirus in our communities and we did need to give schools a little bit extra time."

A spokesman from the Department of Education added it will also provide extensive support to help with testing, running webinars and publishing training materials to aid the programme.

He said: "We understand that a lot is being asked of schools and colleges, which is why schools in every corner of the country are being provided with comprehensive support so that they can test as many pupils as possible, while also providing a mix of face-to-face and remote education for all.

"We are giving schools this time to get ready to deliver the first-of-its-kind schools rapid testing programme, to keep the maximum possible number of students in face-to-face education through the spring term and beyond."

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