A “larger number” of pupils could be forced to return home to self-isolate over the next fortnight while the testing programme in schools gets under way, England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Jenny Harries has said.
Millions of children have been able to return to class in the first step to easing restrictions, but the return of secondary school and college pupils is being staggered this week to allow for mass testing.
Dr Harries said a “larger number of children” could be out of class in the coming weeks as secondary school students are being asked to take Covid-19 tests on site as they return to school.
It will “take time” for families to get used to their children being tested for coronavirus, she added.
Students who test positive in a lateral flow test at school or college over the next few weeks will have to self-isolate for 10 days – and a subsequent negative PCR test will not allow them to go back to class.
But Dr Harries played down suggestions that schools may be forced to close again if new Covid-19 cases emerge, adding that we can be “very optimistic” going forward.
She told a Downing Street press conference: “The testing programme in schools should mean that the likelihood of a case going into a school and then numbers of children having to come out of education to isolate should be very significantly reduced.
“There may be a very short period at the start of this programme where everybody gets used to it and a larger number of children come out of school and then it will settle down.
“It is really important when observing this that people think through the next three to four weeks, not the first one or two.”
Secondary school pupils are being asked to take three voluntary Covid-19 tests on site and one at home over the first fortnight. They will then be sent home-testing kits to use twice weekly.
The Department for Education (DfE) is also advising secondary school students to wear face coverings wherever social distancing cannot be maintained, including in the classroom.
But primary school pupils are not being asked to carry out Covid-19 tests or wear face masks.
Downing Street has confirmed that students who appear positive for Covid-19 in the rapid tests taken at home, rather than at school, will receive a PCR test that could allow them to return to class.
Dr Harries said children would never be forced to have a test and they will be allowed to come into school if they decide not to take part, but she said parents should ask if they are concerned about it.
“I do recognise that for many parents it is quite an unusual ask – before children go off to school to do a swab and a test. It will take time, I think, for families to get used to that,” she told the briefing.
Under the first phase of the Government’s road map out of lockdown, visits to care homes started to resume from Monday – under strictly controlled conditions.
Care home residents have been able to hold the hands of a loved one for the first time in months after they could receive indoor visits from a nominated friend or relative.
And the rules around meeting another household have been loosened to allow people to leave home to meet one other person outdoors for a coffee or picnic.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson praised parents and teachers as he welcomed the return of children to school under the first easing of restrictions.
He told a Downing Street press conference that the return to schools marked a “big day and an emotional day” for millions of families across England.
Mr Johnson acknowledged that an increased risk of transmission was “inevitable” in opening up schools again.
But the Prime Minister said: “We all know that the education of our children is so important that the greater risk now is keeping them out of school for a day longer.”
Dr Harries said that while pupils returning to classrooms will have an impact on the R rate, schools will be “inherently safer places” due to increased testing.
Asked about the impact of schools reopening on infection rates, she said: “What that is likely to do is diminish the number of community transmission cases which could come into schools, so schools will be inherently safer places, but equally it will reach back into families.
“So although I suspect we may see a rise at the start, with luck as we go forward and people get used to using that testing, whole families will be protected as well.”
Some children have also returned to classrooms in Northern Ireland for the first time since December.
P1 to P3 pupils have returned to class but are set to go back to remote learning after two weeks.
First Minister Arlene Foster has expressed hope that those primary pupils will ultimately be able to remain in school.