Concern school Covid testing could lead to super-spreader events
- Credit: PA
Concerns have been raised that coronavirus testing of students in schools could trigger Covid-19 super-spreader events, putting children and volunteers at risk of infection.
Norwich-based researcher Dr Katherine Deane, branch equalities officer for the University and College Union, is worried about how effective infection control will be.
Secondary schools have been gearing up for mass testing of students, using lateral flow kits.
They had been due to reopen in phases in the weeks ahead, but the latest lockdown means they will remain shut to all but children of key workers and vulnerable children.
But the government is still keen to get the testing rolled out, with lateral flow test kits sent to schools.
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However, Dr Deane, who has been reviewing research which has been conducted around the issue, said she is very concerned at the approach being taken.
While the government has clarified it will be students who carry out their own tests, rather than volunteers, volunteers are being sought to assist.
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And Dr Deane says her research, which has not been peer reviewed, raises concerns over whether infection control will be sufficient.
She said: "Schools have a lot of expertise when it comes to logistics, but what they don't have is expertise in infection control and I am very concerned about that."
Testing so far has been done by clinical professionals, she said, yet students, under the watch of volunteers, are being expected to administer swabs themselves.
She said: "Schools don't have experts in infection control, so the level of precision there will be on the set up, the cleaning of the area, the wearing of personal protective equipment and the ventilation is all worrying.
"When you have a swab test, that tends to produce a cough - a gag reflex and the droplets go into the air.
"The big ones will fall quickly, but the fine ones can stay in the air for up to an hour.
"And yet, the idea of the testing is that you get a student swabbed, you clean up and five minutes later the next student is tested.
"It means the volunteers supervising can be at higher risk of infection and, unless the infection control is meticulous, the venues run the risk of being the site of super-spreader events."
Dr Deane said the lateral flow test success rate was "50/50 at best" and there were also risks around whether students could conduct tests correctly.
She warned false negative results could mean they stopped being so cautious about preventing the spread of the virus.
And she said students with disabilities who are not able to self-swab should have the swab administered by clinical trained staff, in individual, well-ventilated rooms.
Dr Deane said volunteers, pupils and parents needed to be aware of the risks of the process, particularly in light of the new variant, which evidence shows is more transmissible.
She suggested that a better use of resources, including volunteers and PPE, would be to make sure the vaccine roll-out succeeds, taking pressure off the NHS.
But one north Norfolk teacher, who wanted to remain anonymous, said: "I have every confidence in the leadership at my school to do their best and that those plans will be as safe and as risk free as possible.
"Everything is about balancing risk. It is risky to go the supermarket.
"Schools are already super-spreading environments for Covid-19.
"There seems to be consistent confusion between the following two phrases - ‘schools are safe’ and ‘schools are safe for everyone’.
"I am not personally worried because I am not hugely at risk and I have confidence in the plans and procedures we have in place, is the same true for everyone, everywhere?
"My main and overriding concern is that students can get back to school as soon as it is safe, for everyone.
"Online learning is no substitute to being face to face. Every teacher knows that one of the most powerful ways of raising student aspiration and achievement is by building and maintaining positive professional relationships.
"This is the key factor that is missing from online learning and that I believe cannot be replicated online."
The Department for Health and Social Care and the Department for Education were approached for comment, but have yet to respond.