Return To School: What You Need To Know About Testing And Masks

All schools and colleges in England can return from 8 March 2021.
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All schools and colleges in England can return from 8 March 2021. "All the evidence shows that schools are safe and the risk posed to children by Covid is vanishingly small," said Boris Johnson at the 22 February press conference. The benefits of getting kids back in the classroom outweigh the risk of driving up infections -- or so it has been judged.

But school life won’t yet be back to normal. The Government has announced several new measures to keep pupils and staff safe, which go beyond the checks in place when schools last opened routinely in December. The following information applies to schools and colleges in England -- other parts of the UK are charting their own courses.

Mass Testing In Secondary Schools

All schools will continue to adopt the various mitigation measures we saw last term. These include class bubbles, regular hand washing, social distancing where possible and staggered arrival and leaving times. 

The biggest difference is the testing regime. The Government wants all older children and teens to have repeated tests at the start of school, with regular tests thereafter. The idea is to pick up more of the asymptomatic cases, before those affected reach the classroom.

The scheme is already proving controversial, with concerns that rapid tests are not sensitive enough to pick up the low viral loads often present in children, as well as questions over the logistics.

Here’s the exact Government wording to avoid confusion: “All secondary school and college students will take three COVID-19 tests as they return to the classroom from the 8 March at existing school testing facilities.”

How individual schools pull off this feat is up to them. It may be that the testing is staggered by year group or class throughout the week. “Schools and colleges will have discretion on how to test students over that week to enable their return to the classroom”. Look out for more information from your school shortly.

After the first week, students and staff will be provided with rapid test kits and expected to use these at home twice a week. It’s a simple swab test, taking a sample from the back of the throat or nose. The tests are, however, voluntary and rely on trust. 

This testing regime also applies to the university students who will return to campus on 8 March (anyone doing a practical course that can’t be done from home, such as most sciences).  

Pupils To Wear Masks

Secondary school and college students will have to mask up during the school day. Government advice suggests that masks should be worn in all areas where social distancing cannot be maintained, and that includes classrooms where necessary -- a measure not seen before. The rule is described as a “temporary extra measure”, and will be lifted after the Easter break if the data allows. 

Can I Keep My Kids Off School?

Some parents have voiced concerns about the return of schools while cases are still high. The Government has, however, made school attendance compulsory from 8 March (with some leeway to allow for initial testing, as outlined above). If you keep your kids off school after that date, then you’ll be subject to a penalty fine, just as in normal times.

What If Infection Rates Start To Climb?

Everyone assumes that the return of 10 million school children will have some impact on the transmission rate. The hope is that, with other areas of society remaining closed and vaccination uptake growing by the day, any impact will be relatively small. If numbers do rise quicker than expected, however, then the Easter holidays just three weeks later should act as a “natural firebreak”, in the words of Prof Chris Whitty, to keep things in check. 

How About Primary Schools?

There are no changes in store for younger children. Staff members will be asked to take two rapid tests per week to screen for the virus, and to wear face masks in communal areas, but children themselves are unaffected. Parents are reminded to take extra care at the school gates, and avoid mixing with other parents.

And Wraparound Childcare?

Breakfast clubs and after-school clubs will also be allowed to resume from 8 March. Details will vary, so look out for information from your own school.

What About Nurseries?

Nurseries and other early years settings often fall off the radar in news reports. As private businesses, they are subject to slightly different regulatory conditions than are state schools. Many continued to operate throughout the winter lockdown. Parents and children should see no difference from 8 March, but staff are now being guaranteed access to rapid home testing twice a week.

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