The Government should roll out mass testing of pupils across the country, an education union has said.
Ministers are urging staff and students in secondary schools and colleges in parts of north-east London, south Essex and Kent to get tested for Covid-19 following a rise in cases among pupils.
An additional 44,000 home test kits will be made available for school staff in the capital, and 15 mobile testing units (MTUs) will be deployed in or near schools in the worst-affected boroughs of London.
But the National Education Union (NEU) has called on ministers to commit to mass testing across the country, not just in the south-east, and they say testing should be rolled out in primary schools.
The plea comes after unions have questioned the Government’s decision not to move to remote learning in secondary schools in England in the last week of term following higher rates of infection among pupils.
The Department of Health and Social Care has warned that Covid-19 cases in areas of London, Kent and Essex have been rising rapidly, with the fastest rates among those aged between 11 to 18.
The latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that infection rates in England remain highest among secondary school-aged children (school years 7 to 11) and young adults (from those in year 12 to those aged 24).
An additional 75,000 PCR tests will be made available for schools in areas of concern in the capital to help stem the spread of coronavirus.
The London boroughs receiving additional tests are: Barking and Dagenham, Hackney, the City of London, Havering, Newham, Redbridge, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest.
In Essex, an additional 10 MTUs will be deployed over the weekend in Southend, Basildon, Canvey Island, Harlow and Brentwood, and in Kent 12 MTUs will be set up.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “It is welcome, though overdue, that mass testing is to be rolled out in some areas. But there are many boroughs where cases are higher than in the boroughs in London, Kent and Essex where the rollout is to happen.
“The Government should commit now to a rollout of mass testing across the country, not just in the south-east. The testing should also happen in primary schools.
“We predict that when this testing happens many children will have to be sent home on public health advice. This will lead in practice to a chaotic closure in the last week of term.”
He added: “The Government would have been much better advised to have encouraged schools to prepare for online learning in the last week of term. That would have resulted in lower cases before the holidays began and could have been planned.”
In Wales, secondary schools and colleges will move to online learning from Monday following advice from the Welsh chief medical officer that the public health situation in the country is “deteriorating”.
When asked why England is not following suit, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden told BBC Breakfast that the Government’s aim is to keep pupils in education through mass testing.
He said: “As a Government we are doing everything we can first of all to prioritise kids remaining in schools, and the vast majority of children remain in schools.
“And secondly, to ensure that schools continue to be a safe place – and I pay tribute to teachers and head teachers and all the work they have done.”
But Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), questioned why the Government has not chosen to end in-person teaching on the last week of term.
He said: “There doesn’t appear to be any clear rationale about why the Government has ignored the option of moving secondary schools to remote education in these areas given the fact that it has clearly identified a significant risk of transmission among this age group.
“We are also very concerned that there are many other areas of England with high infection rates where the Government has failed to take the action that it is now taking in parts of London, Kent, and Essex.”
Mr Dowden refused to comment on whether the Government might close schools early ahead of Christmas to help slow the spread of coronavirus.
Speaking to Times Radio, he said: “The main thing we are doing in respect of schools, which you have seen today, is to have this mass testing to pick up on those kids who are asymptomatic.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “We want to keep schools and colleges open because it is right both for education and public health, but in the face of rapidly rising cases we must act to target rising rates in secondary school pupils.
“I urge every student, parent and teacher in these areas to step forward for testing – irrespective of whether they have symptoms. While Covid-19 may be lower risk to children and young people, it still poses a significant risk to their families and communities.”