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NI special schools to receive rapid Covid testing


A group of principals from the Special Schools Leadership Group are co-designing the programme (Peter Byrne/PA)

A group of principals from the Special Schools Leadership Group are co-designing the programme (Peter Byrne/PA)


A group of principals from the Special Schools Leadership Group are co-designing the programme (Peter Byrne/PA)

Rapid Covid testing is to be introduced to all special schools in Northern Ireland, the Education Authority has confirmed.

It follows a successful pilot scheme which has been running in five schools since the start of February, and the testing will continue until the end of June.

The non-invasive saliva-based LAMP (Loop-mediated Isothermal Amplification) test is designed to find asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic cases so they can be isolated, along with their contacts, as quickly as possible, therefore reducing the risk of transmission of Covid-19 in schools.

The programme is sponsored by the Department of Health and the Department of Education and the Education Authority (EA) and the Public Health Agency (PHA) are working in partnership with Queen’s University, Belfast to deliver the testing programme to all special schools.

Coronavirus Data Graphs

A group of principals from the Special Schools Leadership Group are co-designing the programme and representing the views of the schools in the programme management structures.

Dr Joanne McClean, Consultant in Public Health Medicine with the PHA, said the sacrifices made during this lockdown are now making a difference, and the scheme will arrive at a time when infection rates have dropped significantly.

“That combined with the roll out of the vaccination programme provide many reasons to be hopeful, but testing and following the public health advice remains as important as ever if we are to have better times ahead,” she said.

“The roll out of testing across special schools will help find pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic cases who can then be advised to isolate at home to reduce the risk of spread in the school, so providing protection for others.”

Regular testing will continue to be important as the rollout of vaccination continues because, while the vaccine offers excellent individual protection from the virus, no vaccine is 100% effective so a proportion of vaccinated individuals may remain vulnerable.

“In addition, while the vaccine may stop a person becoming sick, it is possible that a vaccinated individual may still become infected and spread the infection without realising they have it. Finding and isolating people who test positive in a timely manner allows us to quickly provide advice and support to these individuals and anyone they may have been in contact with.

“Regular testing is an additional measure to reduce the spread of Covid-19. It does not replace all the other measures that are in place to reduce transmission,” Dr McClean continued.

“Covid-19 is still a threat and we need everyone to play their part in helping to stop the virus spreading. Stay at home and reduce your contacts, maintain social distancing when possible, wash your hands regularly, wear a face covering when required and get tested if you display any symptoms of coronavirus even if you are taking part in regular testing programmes.

“If you receive a positive test result or have been identified as a close contact of a confirmed case, you will be contacted by the PHA’s Contact Tracing Service and will be required to self-isolate.

“The advice is simple, but it is there for a reason — to help keep us and those around us safe. Don’t take unnecessary risks, exercise common sense, and take every step available to help protect yourself, your loved ones and the community.”

Kim Scott, assistant director at the Education Authority, said that while the scheme will be voluntary, all staff, and pupils will be encouraged to take part.

“In special schools there is a high ratio of teachers to pupils and social distancing cannot be adhered to, because of the specialised hands on support pupils need. Weekly rapid testing will be a vital tool to keep special schools open and functioning effectively for the rest of the school year.

“The programme will give staff in special schools more confidence in providing face to face teaching and improve pupil attendance levels,” she said.

“The benefit children and families get from special school is very significant.

“There are a range of therapies that are only available in school, which support children’s access to educational provision. The routine of regular attendance at school is also a protective factor for many children.”

Many special schools across Northern Ireland have been operating on a part-time basis to ensure the safety of staff and pupils. Despite the Department guidance that hey should remain open for pupils to attend.

How the test works

Because children and young people in special schools have a range of complex needs a non-invasive saliva-based test called LAMP (Loop-mediated Isothermal Amplification) is being used.

The test is highly effective in identifying positive Covid-19 cases, even in asymptomatic cases and results can be given in a matter of hours.

How the testing process works:

• Pupils will receive a testing kit to take home consisting of a sample container with a barcode and two clear plastic bags.

• Pupils spit a small amount of saliva into the container and parents put the container into the two bags.

• Some pupils may have difficulty in providing a saliva sample in this way, so a small pipette is also provided. This can be used to take a small amount of saliva from inside of cheek.

• The samples are brought back to schools on a designated testing day. They are then transported by EA to the laboratory in the QUB School of Pharmacy. Test samples are only identifiable by a barcode.

• If your test is negative, you will be informed by the school each week that Covid-19 was not detected in your test result.

• If your test is positive you will be contacted by your school principal. You and your close contacts will need to self-isolate for 10 days and your details will be passed onto PHA contact tracing service, which is standard process of any positive Covid-19 case.

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