Four out of five schools in England have absent pupils who cannot get a coronavirus test, according to a survey of head teachers.
And almost half (45 per cent) also have staff currently not at work because they cannot access a test to rule out Covid-19, found the poll, carried out over the past 24 hours by the NAHT union.
NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman said the system for getting pupils tested was “in chaos”, leaving schools struggling with staffing and children’s education “needlessly disrupted”.
Schools have been provided with 10 coronavirus test kits each for use in emergencies, but the guidance since they reopened at the start of this month has been that children displaying symptoms should be sent home to get a test via the NHS or dedicated centres.
Children are told to stay away from the classroom until they receive their test result, with a positive test triggering instructions for those who have been in close contact with them to self-isolate.
The NAHT survey of 736 school leaders found that 82 per cent of schools currently have children absent because they are unable to get a test and 87 per cent because they are waiting for test results.
Sixty per cent of schools had staff at home waiting for test results and 45 per cent said teachers were absent due to not being able to access a test.
Mr Whiteman wrote last week to prime minister Boris Johnson to warn that the situation was becoming increasingly disruptive and unsustainable for schools.
“Tests for Covid-19 need to be readily available for everyone so that pupils and staff who get negative results can get back into school quickly,” said the NAHT boss. “But 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.
“This means schools are struggling with staffing, have children missing school, and ultimately that children’s education is being needlessly disrupted.
“The government assured us that testing would be ready for schools reopening – it was one of their own key safety requirements to have in place to enable children and teachers to return.
“It is in no way unpredictable or surprising that the demand for Covid-19 tests would spike when schools reopened more widely this term. And yet the system is in chaos.
“The government has failed schools and children. It is unacceptable for this to happen when schools have put so much effort into getting their part of the plan right, and when pupils have had to endure so much uncertainty and disruption already.”
Almost all schools taking part in the survey – some 94 per cent – said they had already had pupils forced to miss school this term due to suspected or confirmed cases of Covid-19, while 78 per cent said they had staff who had had to self-isolate.
Most schools (70 per cent) had sent home only individual pupils showing symptoms of possible coronavirus, while just 7 per cent had told whole classes to stay home because of possible infection, and 5 per cent had sent home whole year groups.
Just two of the head teachers surveyed said they had been forced to close their schools.
Health secretary Matt Hancock today said that numbers of people seeking tests had “shot up” in recent weeks. He urged individuals to request a test only if they personally had symptoms of Covid – a persistent cough, a fever or loss of the senses of taste or smell – and not just because they have been in contact with someone with the disease.
Mr Hancock told Times Radio: “The number of people coming forward for a test who don't have symptoms, who are not eligible, has absolutely shot up and this is a problem because it means that people who do have symptoms and do need a test have found it more difficult to get one.
“I want people who have symptoms to be able to get the test and for that, people who don't have symptoms, who are self-isolating because they have been close to someone who's tested positive, they need to self-isolate. There’s no point getting a test because you’ve still got to self-isolate.“
A government spokesperson said: “The latest official statistics show that 99.9 per cent of schools are open with the vast majority of pupils attending.
“Where staff or children have symptoms of Covid-19, testing capacity is the highest it has ever been, and we are working to provide further priority access for teachers.
“Schools only need to identify close contacts and ask them to self-isolate if and when a case is confirmed from a positive test result. Close contacts of confirmed cases must follow the full 14-day self-isolation period and should only seek a test if they have symptoms.”