Plans to offer rapid-result COVID-19 tests to secondary pupils in some schools at the start of the January term are being developed by Cumbria County Council, in discussion with Head Teachers.
Details are still being worked through, but as part of the pilot programme returning pupils would be offered a Lateral Flow COVID-19 test at school which provides a result in 30 minutes. Pupils who test negative would proceed to class or to online learning, while any who test positive would then take a confirmatory PCR test which will feed into the existing national testing system. A confirmatory PCR test is required because Lateral Flow tests are less accurate.
The incidence of COVID-19 in Cumbria has been reducing in recent weeks. But increased social contact over the Christmas period could result in the virus spreading again. The precautionary testing of asymptomatic pupils before they start back in the classroom provides an opportunity to reduce the likelihood of outbreaks in schools and avoid disruption to pupils’ learning and home life.
There are significant practical challenges to conducting the testing which mean not all schools will participate in the pilot. At the current time it is anticipated that around half of the county’s 40 secondary schools will be involved in discussions on the possibility to participate.
Carrying out testing at this scale is complex and requires significant resources. As such the pilot programme is currently limited to secondary schools only. This also reflects the fact that there has been a higher incidence of COVID-19 among secondary age pupils.
For pupils at participating schools testing will not be mandatory and consent will be required from parents. The test is totally voluntary and can be stopped at any time. Depending on arrangements, it may be necessary for year groups to return to school in a staggered manner over the first few days of term to allow testing to take place. Detailed planning is ongoing with each school to ensure disruption is kept to a minimum whilst ensuring a safe and efficient test process.
Schools considering becoming part of the pilot programme will be contacting families before the end of term to explain their intentions.
Colin Cox, Cumbria’s Director of Public Health, said: “Unlike some other parts of the country, we are currently in a reasonably good place in terms of covid in schools. What we want to do is get ahead of the game and really reduce the chance of future outbreaks.
“By taking advantage of the fact that Lateral Flow tests allow lots of people to be tested, and get results, very quickly we have the opportunity to nip outbreaks in the bud for Cumbria.
“There really are big practical challenges in doing this and we’re working very closely with schools to come up with an approach that works. For parents and pupils at schools which do take part, I would really urge you get tested. It’s quick and easy and the more people that take part the safer everyone will be.”
“It’s not fool proof, we know that Lateral Flow tests are less accurate and do miss around a fifth of positive cases, but even so, if we can get a large number of pupils and teachers tested it massively reduces the risk of infection being brought into schools.
Judith Schafer, Chair of the Cumbria Association of Secondary Headteachers, said: “Head teachers across the county have worked hard since March to make sure schools are as Covid-secure as possible and to safeguard the health and wellbeing of students and staff.
“We know pupils and staff will come into contact with a wider range of people over the holiday period, increasing the possibility of infection. This is an opportunity to make sure we are as safe as we can be before lessons start again in January and to reduce the risk of infection spreading not only in schools but also the wider community in the New Year, minimising disruption.
“It's a complicated exercise and the details are still being discussed. But provided the resources are available and the logistical challenges can be overcome, it will make a difference. It's great to be able to work closely with the county council to try and make this happen. If plans are agreed, I hope as many students and staff as possible will take part.”