We need more tests at school. This is not a typical cry from our educational leaders, but we are in unusual times. Testing holds the key to returning an otherwise lost generation of young people back to education this September. It was noticeably absent from the Education Secretary’s announcement yesterday, receiving only a cursory mention that – should everything go wrong and outbreaks occur – mobile units will arrive at an infected school to test anyone who’s decided to stick around. By then, it will be too little too late. Instead, testing must be proactive and sit at the heart of a back-to-school strategy, addressing the two fundamental issues at the heart of this challenge that today’s announcement has missed.
First, testing will provide hard evidence to alleviate the legitimate fears of parents, pupils and teachers on the health outcomes of those in a school environment infected by Covid-19. Second, testing is the only way we can identify where and what types of schools – if any – are susceptible to becoming “super-spreader settings” where transmission of the virus takes place. This is a very real risk. The emergency Public Health England (PHE) report on Leicester’s outbreak suggests that increased infections among young people contributed to an outbreak, and the latest data from PHE shows a stabilisation in the number of school-based outbreaks after the figure doubled when some older pupils returned. These two challenges are interconnected as confusion around the transmission status of schools fuels fear that children and teachers aren’t safe.
The peripheral role of testing can be explained by the painful upbringing of today’s back-to-school plan. Powered by politics and riven by a series of battles – teachers vs parents, unions vs government, Labour vs Conservative – we have forgotten a fundamental behavioural principle: Fear breeds inertia. In the context of schools this means that if parents perceive a risk, they’re less likely to return their kids in September. If a teacher fears for their health, then expect absences and further standoffs between unions and school leadership. The stage is set for a piecemeal, stilted restart of a system providing substandard education come September.
The nature of these fears can be quickly gleaned from a brief look at Mumsnet or by scouring teacher’s forums. Their prevalence of fear is clear from the data. According to YouGov, teachers are the most likely key workers in Covid-19 to feel anxiety as a result of their work, while just 14 per cent in a survey of more than 20,000 teachers believe it safe to return to school. For parents, we know that around half believe that it isn’t currently safe to reopen schools, and the impact of this is startling. For year groups that returned on 1 June – that’s reception, year 1 and year 6 – the proportion of children returning has lingered around 60 to 70 per cent. This means at least three out of every ten children in apparently reopened year groups are not receiving an education. Most worryingly of all, a social chasm widens even further with every week that passes: In fee-paying and the most affluent primaries, at least two in three students are back; in primary schools with the highest percentage of free school meals, half of children or fewer from the relevant year groups have returned.
We shouldn’t counter fear with fines but facts. There is a very small risk to children, but it’s important to put it into context. In the UK, over the three-month period from February to May, unintentional injury caused 60 deaths among those aged 0 to 19, while Covid-19 related to 11. As today’s guidance rightly acknowledges, “For the vast majority of children, the benefits of being back in school far outweigh the very low risk from coronavirus”. For teachers it’s a different matter, so the bulk of health measures should focus on them. Access to regular testing regardless of symptoms would allow teaching staff to know their Covid-19 status and self-isolate only when necessary, while face shields and social distancing would protect adults in a school environment.
We must test to understand whether schools are transmission hotspots. We have capacity to start this now. By testing the entire pupil population of 2,000 schools over a three-week period, we can build a sufficient dataset to confidently designate “super-spreader setting” status by type and location of school. For example, rural primary schools may be risk-free while inner-city secondary schools could be revealed as hotspots for virus transmission. Those confirmed as such would qualify for ongoing, twice-weekly testing for all persons within this setting to contain outbreaks and provide reassurance. Disproval of a school’s status as a super-spreader setting would – by its very nature – serve as a confidence boost for a return to school. Regular monitoring would offer ongoing reassurance should the situation change.
Despite the relative absence of testing, the official reopening guidance was right on one thing: There cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach to a return to education. Parents, teachers and pupils will each harbour their own fears, and these can only be addressed by providing access to reliable data unblurred by the divisions stoking this debate. Like the children in them, every school is different, but each is united by a shared purpose: to give our young people the best start in life. With that at risk, investment in a testing regime ready for their return in September is a price worth paying.
Read our full paper “Back in September: A Test for Our Schools”