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【The Standard】Testing for Covid-19 in UK independent schools

Boarding 101


How are the UK’s independent schools now going to make sure that they can provide safe environments for pupils for the start of the next academic year?

Assuming that they can begin the year in September, what can be done to reassure parents that schools will not become a source of further health problems when all the children come together again?

This is, of course, a matter that is especially concerning for international parents who have the added issue of being unable to reach their children easily if something should happen.

A recent development in the UK that will provide a great deal of reassurance for parents is that the Boarding Schools’ Association has now created a Covid-Safe Charter. The member schools that adopt this charter will comply with all government rules and guidance on the virus, and additionally will meet a further set of BSA requirements. 

The extensive list includes everything from the obvious precaution of deep-cleaning the school before it reopens to providing staff with specific training in the safe management of boarding houses under the new guidance. It also requires that schools allow pupils and staff to wear masks or face coverings. And it even takes into consideration the psychological element of dealing with the virus: schools must ensure that any bullying relating to the pandemic will not be tolerated.

The charter states that prior to reopening, schools will “decide on any regular testing procedures and advise pupils and parents accordingly. Support testing wherever possible. Provide a suitable isolation area to care for pupils who show symptoms and/or test positive.”

At present, it is unclear whether the 14-day quarantine period that currently applies to those coming into the UK will be continued for long since the UK government is facing pressure over this issue. While this might be a cause for concern for international parents, there are extensive testing systems being prepared at schools.

Mark Taylor, an education consultant helping schools to set up one such testing system, explained to me how it will work in September.

Every pupil and staff member is tested prior to the first day of the term. Only those with a negative test will actually start school.

If anyone has a positive test then they will be isolated and only rejoin once they have a negative test.

Now, this is not perfect because it does not exclude those students who are carrying the virus but are asymptomatic. So, from the first day of term and then throughout the term, any student or staff member who has any symptoms will be immediately isolated and tested. Test results will be available in 24 hours.

Furthermore, anyone with whom the person showing symptoms has been in contact will be identified and tested.

This way, there will be an effective track, trace and test system operating within the school while the flow of everyday life carries on without any major disruptions.

Finally, schools might opt for blanket testing, say at half term or at the end of the term, for international students needing a certificate to show they are virus-free and able to fly home.

Taylor also stressed another point: although this is probably the most challenging and worrying time some of us will ever experience, it is sometimes healthy to put problems like this into perspective.

According to the UK government statistician and professor of public risk David Spiegelhalter, in the UK there is a population of 10 million under the age of 15 and of all the Covid-19 related deaths in the country, only two actually fall into this age group.

There are 17 million people under the age of 25, with only 26 Covid-19 related deaths occurring and in this age group. Most of these deaths occurred because there was an underlying health condition.

In other words, while we should not underestimate the danger of the virus for young people, we should have a realistic view of the situation and feel reassured by the thorough testing systems being implemented for September.