COVID-19: lessons from school testing (Lancashire, Manchester and Birmingham)

At the end of 2020, Star Academies undertook pilots of daily COVID-19 testing in three of their schools (one in Lancashire, one in Manchester and one in Birmingham). This case study explores the lessons learned from this pilot.

What was done?

Star Academies schools had all been impacted badly by COVID-19 in the autumn term with 11,000 positive cases identified from September, about 400 of which were staff. The majority of positive cases had been found in their secondary schools. The prevalence was found to be lower in their primary schools where whole bubbles were required to self-isolate.

Ahead of starting this pilot there were concerns about the impact of false positive cases and that there could be a sharp increase in the number of those having to self-isolate.

Initially the pilots of daily testing had a take up of around 30 to 50 per cent across the three schools. The number of tests however increased each week as confidence in this system grew. Star Academies received a great deal of support from both the army and local authorities, they were supported and shadowed by administrative staff.

They were able to undertake weekly testing at an average school with four bays, testing 100 pupils in 90 minutes.

Lessons learned

The level of training required was very low. It was imperative that key staff learned the processes and steps, but this could be achieved quickly. Based on Star Academies experience remote support from the army in giving training on the processes and steps would have been sufficient in preparing staff. In terms of staffing Star Academies found considering school administration staff first to be the best approach, as well as those who would be familiar with the school such as their invigilators. They found finding staff for this kind of testing manageable.

The importance of providing reassurance to families concerned about the testing process was a clear lesson taken from Star Academies experience, in particular those families who are worried about having to self-isolate for a number of reasons. This was necessary when asking for parental consent for their children to participate in the testing process. They found that speaking to parents as well as writing to them was effective. Organising a Zoom briefing for parents proved to be invaluable in providing that reassurance.

In all three schools they found the number of students in self-isolation was reduced by a half. There were absentees who had refused to come into school in September who returned as confidence in the testing programmes increased. They also found most year 7 to year 11 students were able to self-swab easily.

Many chose to self-isolate with their children instead of consenting to testing, Star Academies found a 50 per cent consent rate was very good in the schools they were undertaking these pilots in. Therefore, the amount of children needing to be tested was significantly lower than the total number of pupils at the school.

Star Academies of course stressed the importance of this school testing as a part of a co-ordinated response to COVID-19 and that it should not happen in isolation of wider testing efforts.