Secondary school re-opening: Good attendance and mask-wearing amid testing confusion

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Despite confusion over the government’s contradictory Covid testing policy and continuing ambiguity over the face masks in classrooms, the full re-opening of England’s secondaries has gone smoothly with good attendance in the majority of schools.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) reports a high take-up of Covid tests and pupils “generally following policies on wearing face coverings in secondary classrooms”.

A snapshot survey on Monday (March 8) found that of 729 schools and colleges, 54 per cent saw on-site Covid test take-up of between 90 and 100 per cent; a further 24 per cent saw take-up of 80 to 89 per cent.

Furthermore, of 706 schools and colleges, 73 per cent reported that more than 90 per cent of students were complying with school/college policy on face coverings in classrooms. Only two per cent said compliance was below 70 per cent.

However, the government’s contradictory policy on testing is still causing confusion and, according to one headteacher, is resulting in healthy children being forced to self-isolate this week. ASCL is concerned that tens of thousands of students could be sent home to self-isolate needlessly.

The government expects secondary schools and colleges to provide on-site Covid tests to returning pupils before they enter the classroom (DfE, 2021).

However, while pupils who get a positive result from a home LFD (lateral flow device) test can still return to the classroom if a subsequent PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test comes back negative, the Department for Education (DfE) has reiterated that a negative PCR test cannot override positive results from LFD tests taken in school.

It means that schools must follow self-isolation rules in the latter scenario. Paul Haigh, headteacher of King Ecgbert School, a large comprehensive in Sheffield, told SecEd on Tuesday (March 9) that they have already seen “several families” with positive LFD tests yet negative follow-up PCR tests.

He explained: “We know we are getting false positive test results from LFD tests. Public health officials tell us the PCR test should trump the LFD test but NHS track and trace won’t budge – meaning we’ve got some perfectly healthy children and their entire families locked down just when everyone else is getting back to school, a real kick in the teeth psychologically.”

LFDs are quick turnaround tests and are being used for school and home testing, whereas PCR tests are considered the most reliable but require laboratory processing.

ASCL and others had tried to convince the DfE to change its testing policy but to no avail. An email from Sanctuary Buildings to school leaders this week reiterated the rules. It is thought that ministers do not want to do anything that may undermine the uptake of LFD tests.

Elsewhere, it is estimated that up to three-quarters of secondary schools are phasing the return of pupils in order to manage the flow through testing stations.

Other challenges for secondary schools have included getting parental consent for the Covid tests, which ASCL says has proved “especially difficult in some places”. The government’s refusal to make mask-wearing mandatory in classrooms has also placed secondary school leaders in conflict with some parents.

The government has extended the recommended use of face coverings to the classroom in secondary schools and colleges, but has not made them mandatory. ASCL is urging all parents and pupils to follow their school’s rules on face coverings which it says “are in line with public health guidance and are there for the good of everybody”.

Despite these challenges, Geoff Barton, ASCL general secretary, said full re-opening has gone smoothly: “The early indications are very encouraging and the feedback we are receiving also suggests that attendance is good in the majority of schools.

“Schools and colleges have worked incredibly hard to plan and prepare for the return of pupils and we would like to put on record our thanks and admiration for everything they have done. The requirement to provide on-site Covid tests has been particularly onerous, and introducing face coverings in classrooms has opened up a minefield that they have had to navigate.

“We know schools have had to put a great deal of time and effort into obtaining parental consent for on-site Covid tests and that has clearly proved especially difficult in some places. Likewise, while most pupils and parents are supporting schools over the thorny issue of face coverings, it appears that some are not doing so.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, added: “Organising and administering tests has certainly added another layer of complexity to the return and, because of that, not all pupils will be back in the classroom today (March 8). The government’s muddled messaging about lateral flow tests and PCR tests has added confusion to that complexity, which will be frustrating for schools.”

Back in Sheffield, Mr Haigh echoed the sentiments about the smooth re-opening. He added: “Attendance has been really high. Children and families are clearly confident and keen about returning. Our testing team has been superb, going from ticking over to suddenly doing 400 tests a day is a staggering achievement, virtually the whole team has been recruited from our local community, mostly parents.”

He said that his priority for the coming weeks will be to re-establish routines, great attendance, behaviour and relationships: “Our recovery strategy is focused on the vulnerable learners who won’t have coped as well but based on in-class interventions that include a focus on literacy and great use of formative assessment to tailor lessons to meet learners’ needs.”

He urged ministers to resist “micromanaging” the recovery efforts in schools: “Talk of changes to the school day, the length of terms, summer schools are a silly distraction – you gave us academy freedoms to allow us to make the decisions that work best for our community, so can politicians please relax and take pride in what we’ll do, not try to line-manage us. We are the experts in working with our children.”


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