A new survey by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has found that four out of five schools have required children to quarantine at home because they have been unable to access COVID-19 tests.
The problem, the union claims, was causing “chaos” for schools trying to return all children to full-time education.
The union says that the results show that school pupils in England have been “failed” by the government.
NAHT’s findings coincide with revelations by Public Health England (PHE) that outbreaks of COVID-19 surged from 16 to more than 100 in a single week during September.
The union’s results were based on the views of the 736 school heads (out of a membership of 30,000) who responded to the survey questionnaire.
The difficulties extend to school staff as well as pupils.
45% of the heads polled reported that their schools had staff unavailable for work due to lack of access to the tests that would clear them.
60% reported that already-tested staff were unable to return to school as they were still awaiting results.
Of the schools required to send children home as a result of suspected or confirmed coronavirus cases, the overwhelming majority concerned individual pupils only.
Just 7% of the respondents reported sending entire classes home, and only 5% had done so with entire year groups.
NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman said: “We are hearing the same thing repeatedly from our members across the country – chaos is being caused by the inability of staff and families to successfully get tested when they display symptoms”.
Despite assurances from government that sufficient testing would be up and running, he added, the survey indicates that schools and children were being “failed” in reality.
He insisted that the problem was “unacceptable” after schools had worked so diligently to get “their part of the plan right”.
The most recent data from PHE covering the period between 7th and 13th September shows 110 confirmed COVID-19 outbreaks, or ‘clusters’, in England’s educational establishments.
The week before, the number had been 16.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said that COVID-19 testing capacity was now higher than at any previous time and that the department was providing more priority access for teachers.
Meanwhile, the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, has called on the government to provide further clarity on who really needs to be away from school if there are symptoms.
Her office estimates that 10% of children are currently at home on an average school day in England, but half of that total, amounting to 400,000 children, are being kept out of school not because they are ill or infected but because they cannot obtain tests to clear them for attendance.
Longfield expressed particular concern about children designated as ‘SEND’ (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) as well as more vulnerable teenagers who remain out of school and will need additional support to return.
She added: “We also know there are a lot of the children that aren’t in school don’t have symptoms themselves, but are in year groups with children who might”.
Warning that the problems would worsen when COVID-19 was joined by ordinary bouts of seasonal flu, she said: “This is a test for government that they cannot afford not to pass”.