Testing, testing, 1,2,3…

Over the course of this week, we have run the first round of our lateral flow tests for coronavirus in school. It has been really successful, and I am pleased to report – at time of writing – that of the 212 tests carried out, all have been negative.

Our testing centre, ready for its first visitors

The testing programme for schools was originally announced just before the end of term 2, but the full guidance wasn’t released until New Year’s Eve, which led to a somewhat fraught Christmas break. As you will all know, the first week back wasn’t exactly smooth sailing either, with a national lockdown announced at 8pm on the first Monday! But once we had navigated that particular storm, we were able to get our heads around setting up testing for the students and staff working in school.

The Department for Education originally announced three strands to the testing programme for schools:

  1. Mass testing of students in school – students to take two tests, 3-5 days apart
  2. Weekly testing of staff working in school – this has now been increased to twice weekly
  3. Daily testing of those identified as close contacts of a confirmed case of COVID-19

Since that initial announcement, the Department for Education has “paused” the third strand, in line with medical advice. Close contacts will now be advised to self-isolate, as has been the case in schools since September.

The first two strands, however, are going ahead as planned. The aim is to minimise the risk of transmission: by testing people in school, any identified asymptomatic cases can be isolated. This will prevent them from unwittingly spreading the virus. It also gives greater reassurance to those of us continuing to work and learn in school.

Consent remains absolutely essential in our administration of the testing programme. We will only carry out tests where we have explicit, written consent. We do not require a test of anyone, and we will always respect the wishes of those that choose not to undertake a test. Also, if students are uncomfortable or upset, we will do what we can to support them – but they do not have to go ahead with the test, and can say “no” at any time without any consequence. As it happens, everyone has been fine with it – but these principles are very important to us at the Academy.

The training and support materials from NHS Test and Trace are excellent. Everything arrived on time, as announced, with clear instructions. There was online training which helped spell out how to get everything set up, and how to run each of the roles in the testing centre. I have always loved the NHS – and this programme has only increased my respect for the work of our health service.

We set our testing centre up in the Academy Hall, with its newly-replaced floor shining and pristine, giving the whole place a lift! Academy staff volunteered to take on the various roles within the system. Everyone has been trained and registered with NHS Test and Trace.

Our testing centre labels: Testing Station and Taylor Swift have the same initials, so each Testing Station was named after a different Taylor Swift album. I only wish I’d put them in the right order, but they were laminated before I could correct it!

The tests work using a swab of the back of the throat and the nose. This is not a very pleasant experience, but all the students and staff who have participated have shown the Academy value of determination and just got on with it! The testing team have put on a good soundtrack of background music too, which means that people aren’t so self-conscious when swabbing the backs of their throats.

Email received from testing centre staff about our students in Frontline

Once the swab has been taken, the testing centre staff prepare a sample using extraction fluid, which is then dropped into a lateral flow test cartridge. It’s called “lateral flow” because the liquid in the sample “flows” sideways along the strip, revealing the result after it reaches the far end.

A lateral flow test in action

Each test is timed, as you have to read the result between 20 and 30 minutes after the test has been started for it to be valid. One red line on “C” (for “Control”) means the test has worked. A red line on “T” (for “Test”) means that the test is positive for coronavirus.

A positive test result on a lateral flow test doesn’t necessarily mean you have COVID-19. This must be confirmed by a PCR test, which is processed in a lab. Anyone testing positive must self-isolate until the confirmation is received, just in case.

Equally, a negative test doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have the virus. You can still catch it; you can still spread it. Therefore, in school, we have continued to reinforce the importance of hands, face, space – even though everyone has so far tested negative.

It is strange to see my colleagues kitted out in full PPE, and the Academy Hall transformed into something resembling a field hospital. But these are strange times, and we will continue to do all we can to keep our staff and students safe.