Frequently asked questions on COVID-19 for schools

The Public Health Agency (PHA) COVID-19 School Team has compiled a series of frequently asked questions (FAQs) in collaboration with the Education Authority (EA).

Questions have been based on the calls the PHA has received from schools or EA COVID-19 Link Officers (COLOs) since schools opened on August 24. It is not exhaustive and if your question is not covered you should speak to your named COLO. This is a live document and can be adapted if new questions arise.

FAQs documents are also available as follows:

Department of Education (DE)

www.education-ni.gov.uk/frequently-asked-questions-education-restart 

Education Authority (EA)

www.eani.org.uk/education-restart

Support Numbers

Education Authority emergency helpline for COVID-19 suspected or confirmed cases: 028 9041 8056 operating hours 7 days per week 8am - 8pm or via confirmed.covid19@eani.org.uk 

PHA COVID-19 School Team: 028 9536 0484

Operating hours Monday to Friday 8am - 4pm and Saturday to Sunday 10am - 2pm.

Table of Contents

  1. 1. Can we get further information on the dedicated PHA COVID-19 School Team?
  2. 2. In relation to the PHA COVID-19 School Team, what is it NOT the PHA’s job to do?
  3. Pupils and staff that have symptoms
  4. 3. A child or staff member has developed COVID-19 symptoms while at school. What should the school do?
  5. Pupils and staff that have been tested
  6. 4. A child or staff member from the school has had a COVID-19 test. What does the school need to do?
  7. Pupils and staff that have tested positive for COVID-19 (ie confirmed case of COVID-19)
  8. 5. A child or staff member from the school has had a positive test. What does the school need to do?
  9. 6. Can schools share children’s personal data with the PHA Schools Team under the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR)?
  10. 7. A child or staff member has tested positive. What should the school tell parents?
  11. 8. A positive case has been identified in a class. How should the classroom be cleaned afterwards?
  12. Household members of pupils and staff who have been tested
  13. 9. Someone who lives with a child or staff member has had a test. Can the child/staff member come to school?
  14. 10. Someone who lives with a child or staff member has tested positive. Can the child/staff member come to school?
  15. 11. Someone who lives with a child or staff member has tested negative. Can the child/staff member come to school?
  16. 12. A child or staff member has had contact with a confirmed case. Can they come to school?
  17. Close Contacts
  18. 13. What is a close contact of a confirmed case of COVID-19?
  19. 14. A child or staff member has had close contact with someone with symptoms of COVID-19. Can they come to school?
  20. 15. A parent or sibling of a child at school has had close contact with a confirmed case. Can the child still come to school?
  21. 16. A member of staff or pupil has been identified as a close contact of a confirmed case and advised to self-isolate for 14 days by the PHA Contact Tracing Service. Can other pupils or staff in the class still come to school?
  22. PHA Contact Tracing Service (Test, Trace, Protect)
  23. 17. How does communication from Test, Trace, Protect  work?
  24. 18. Who contacts who when there is a confirmed case?
  25. Travel
  26. 19. Parents of a child in school travelled to a country that requires quarantine on return. Does the child need to quarantine if they did not travel?
  27. Prevention
  28. 20. Do pupils require a temperature check on arrival at school?
  29. 21. Can support officers move between different schools during a day/week?
  30. 22. A child has health problems that may put them at higher risk from COVID-19. Should they attend school?
  31. 23. A staff member has health problems that may put them at higher risk from COVID-19. What precautions does the school need to take?
  32. 24. What can children bring to school?
  33. 25. Can children use sand play in school settings?   
  34. 26. Can water play be used in school settings?
  35. 27. Can play dough be used in childcare settings?
  36. 28. Can soft furnishings be used in a childcare setting?
  37. 29. Can music classes continue at school?
  38. 30. Can teaching practical elements continue in post-primary schools?
  39. Home Testing Kits
  40. 31. What should I do with the home testing kits?

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1. Can we get further information on the dedicated PHA COVID-19 School Team?

The PHA Health Protection Service provides a 24 hour on call service to manage control of infectious diseases in Northern Ireland eg meningitis, E. coli, food poisoning and environmental issues. The service also works in collaboration with the PHA’s Contact Tracing Service (Test, Track, Protect) to manage COVID-19 cases throughout society and not just in schools. The service is under extreme pressure as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In recognition of this, the PHA COVID-19 School Team has been established to manage cases of COVID-19 that occur in the school setting.  The team is open Monday to Friday 8am to 4pm and Saturday to Sunday 10am to 2pm on 028 9536 0484. The team discuss the risk assessment with the principal or other senior member of staff and answer any questions that arise in relation to this.

See the PHA COVID school information pack which can be accessed on C2K exchange or downloaded here.

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2. In relation to the PHA COVID-19 School Team, what is it NOT the PHA’s job to do?

The PHA COVID-19 School Team will discuss, risk assess and agree the public health actions for confirmed case(s) in the school setting with the principal, along with answering questions that arise from this assessment. 

In the first instance, please contact the EA helpdesk (028 9041 8056) for questions that may arise around the operations of the school as a result of confirmed case and close contacts requiring exclusion from school.

Your link officer will also be available to discuss questions relating to COVID-19 that are not about a confirmed case in a school.

Calls from schools and parents with hypothetical scenarios will be directed to NI Direct for advice. If it is a medical issue (as opposed to the control of COVID-19) then the caller should be signposted to their GP.

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Pupils and staff that have symptoms

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3. A child or staff member has developed COVID-19 symptoms while at school. What should the school do?

Anyone with symptoms of fever, new continuous cough or loss of, or change to, normal sense of smell or taste should go home immediately and arrange a COVID-19 test. This can be done by phoning 119 or via the web portal https://COVID-19.hscni.net/testing/

If a child becomes unwell in school, the child should be moved to a separate room with appropriate supervision and good ventilation. Section 8 of the DE New School Day should be followed: 

www.education-ni.gov.uk/publications/coronavirus-COVID-19-guidance-school-and-educational-settings-northern-ireland 

Siblings at the school should also go home until the test result is available.

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Pupils and staff that have been tested

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4. A child or staff member from the school has had a COVID-19 test. What does the school need to do?

Only individuals that have symptoms (fever, new continuous cough or loss of, or change to, normal sense of smell or taste) should have a COVID-19 test. They should remain off school pending the result. No further action is needed by the school until the result is back.

If the result is negative, nothing needs to be done by the school

  • The individual can re-attend school if they have had no fever for 48 hours and have not been identified as a close contact of any case and instructed to self-isolate for 14 days or advised to self-isolate by the Stop COVID NI app.
  • Their household members can attend school if they do not have symptoms of COVID-19 and have not been identified as a close contact of any case and instructed to self-isolate for 14 days or advised to self-isolate by the Stop COVID NI app.

If the result is positive, the person is now a confirmed case – see next question.

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Pupils and staff that have tested positive for COVID-19 (ie confirmed case of COVID-19)

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5. A child or staff member from the school has had a positive test. What does the school need to do?

The person is now a confirmed case and the PHA School Information Pack guidance should be consulted and followed.

  • PHA Contact Tracing Service (Test, Trace, Protect) will contact the individual and advise them that they need to isolate for at least 10 days.
  • PHA Contact Tracing Service will gather information on household and non-school community close contacts (see question 13) and advise them that they need to self-isolate for 14 days.
  • PHA COVID-19 School Team will gather information from the school principal on school (pupils and staff) close contacts (see question 13).  Advice that they need to self-isolate for 14 days will be provided by Letter A.
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6. Can schools share children’s personal data with the PHA Schools Team under the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR)?

Yes.

COVID-19 is a notifiable disease. This means that medical practitioners have a statutory duty to report COVID-19 to the Director of Public Health of the Public Health Agency.

Contact tracing of notifiable diseases (in this case COVID-19) is vitally important to reduce spread. The data sharing required to carry out contact tracing for COVID-19 is therefore in the public interest.

As contact tracing is vitally important to slow the spread of COVID-19 and data sharing for this purpose is in the public interest for public health reasons, schools do not require the consent of parents or pupils to share a pupil’s personal data with the PHA COVID-19 School Team for this purpose. Your school should however still make parents and pupils aware that you are required to share pupil’s personal information with the PHA COVID-19 School Team for this purpose.

The Education Authority has shared a template Privacy Notice for schools to use on their website www.eani.org.uk/about-us/privacy/ea-think-data-online-resource-hub/templates-and-guides which explains to parents and pupils who their information may be shared with and highlights that information may be shared with Health and Social Care organisations – this includes the PHA Contact Tracing Service.

If you have further queries you should speak to your school’s Data Protection Officer (DPO) for advice. If your school has appointed the Education Authority as its DPO, the Education Authority’s Information Governance team can be contacted by calling 028 8241 1300 or by emailing thinkdata@eani.org.uk

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7. A child or staff member has tested positive. What should the school tell parents?

Schools have no obligation to inform parents of a positive case in the school. However, in the interests of open communication, schools may wish to inform parents when there is a case, being careful to maintain confidentiality and not give information that may identify the individual concerned. The PHA has compiled a letter that you may wish to use in communicating more widely to parents and staff (Letter B).

Parents can be reassured that people who are not identified as close contacts are at no more risk than the general public. Everyone should be following the public health guidance to wash your hands, keep your distance and stay at home if you have a fever, new continuous cough or loss of, or change to, normal sense of smell or taste.

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8. A positive case has been identified in a class. How should the classroom be cleaned afterwards?

Enhanced cleaning should be carried out in areas where a confirmed case has been present. Staff and children can return after cleaning has been completed. 

Public areas where a confirmed case has passed through and spent minimal time in (such as corridors), but which are not visibly contaminated with body fluids, can be cleaned as normal.

The enhanced clean will be managed by the EA Cleaning Service and schools can contact the Service on 028 9041 8057.

For information, enhanced cleaning of the area means cleaning and disinfecting all surfaces that the symptomatic person has come into contact with, paying particular attention to areas where there may have been higher environmental contamination, including ‘frequently touched’ surfaces such as door handles, communal touch points, communication devices (for example, mobile phones, tablets, desktops, keyboards), grab-rails in corridors, stairwells and toilets. Disposable gloves and an apron (minimum Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)) is worn and personal waste from the case(s) and waste from cleaning will be disposed of by the cleaning service.

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Household members of pupils and staff who have been tested

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9. Someone who lives with a child or staff member has had a test. Can the child/staff member come to school?

If the household member has had a test because they have symptoms (fever, new continuous cough or loss of, or change to, normal sense of smell or taste) then the child or staff member must not come to school as they will be self-isolating pending the test result.

If the test was done as part of a worker testing programme (eg care home workers) and the person tested does not have symptoms of COVID-19, their household contacts can continue normal activities until the result is back.

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10. Someone who lives with a child or staff member has tested positive. Can the child/staff member come to school?

No.

All household contacts of a confirmed case should isolate for 14 days from the date of the case’s symptom onset, or positive test date if the case did not have symptoms. The PHA Contact Tracing Service (Test, Trace, Protect) will be in touch to advise them of this.

Individuals advised to self-isolate by the Stop COVID NI app should also not attend school.

Individuals should only get a test if they become symptomatic during the 14 day isolation period. If they test negative they still need to isolate for 14 days. If they test positive, they need to isolate for a further 10 days from when their symptoms started.

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11. Someone who lives with a child or staff member has tested negative. Can the child/staff member come to school?

Yes, unless they have been advised to isolate by the PHA Contact Tracing Service or the Stop COVID NI app.

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12. A child or staff member has had contact with a confirmed case. Can they come to school?

If they live in the same house as the case - no.

Household contacts of confirmed cases should isolate for 14 days from the onset of the case’s symptoms, or the positive test date if the case did not have symptoms.

If they do not live in the same house as the confirmed case but have been identified as a close contact by the PHA contact tracing service – No.

Individuals that have been identified as a ‘close contact’ of confirmed cases should isolate for 14 days.

If they do not live in the same house as the case and have not been identified as a close contact by the PHA contact tracing service – Yes.

They can attend unless advised otherwise by the PHA contact tracing service.

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Close Contacts

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13. What is a close contact of a confirmed case of COVID-19?

A person who has been close to a confirmed case from two days before the person was symptomatic to 10 days after the onset of symptoms and:

  • lives in the same household
  • has travelled in a car with the case OR
  • has been within 2 metres of a case for more than 15 minutes OR
  • has been within 1 metre of a case and had face-to-face contact including:
  • being coughed on
  • having a face-to-face conversation
  • having skin-to-skin physical contact
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14. A child or staff member has had close contact with someone with symptoms of COVID-19. Can they come to school?

Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, new continuous cough or loss of, or change to, normal sense of smell or taste.

No - if they live in the same house as the person with symptoms.

All individuals with symptoms should get tested. Household contacts of anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 should isolate while awaiting the result of the test.

Yes - if they do not live with the person.

However, a degree of pragmatism may be required for a child or staff member who has had prolonged, close contact with a symptomatic individual. In such circumstances, it may be sensible for the individual to remain off pending the symptomatic individual’s test result.

If they develop symptoms themselves they should stay at home and arrange a COVID-19 test.

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15. A parent or sibling of a child at school has had close contact with a confirmed case. Can the child still come to school?

Yes.

Only people that have been identified as a close contact (see question 13) of a confirmed case by the PHA contact tracing service need to isolate for 14 days.

If a child has not had close contact with the case themselves they can carry on all normal activities even if their parent/sibling is isolating.

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16. A member of staff or pupil has been identified as a close contact of a confirmed case and advised to self-isolate for 14 days by the PHA Contact Tracing Service. Can other pupils or staff in the class still come to school?

Yes.

Only people that have been identified as a close contact (see question 13) by the PHA contact tracing service need to isolate for 14 days.

As other people in class/school have not had direct close contact with a case they can carry on all normal activities.

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PHA Contact Tracing Service (Test, Trace, Protect)

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17. How does communication from Test, Trace, Protect  work?

The PHA Contact Tracing Service receives all positive lab results in Northern Ireland three time a day, seven days a week.

All cases go into a queue for a telephone conversation with contact tracer callers. Contact tracers phone all cases and provide self-isolation advice for 10 days from the onset of symptoms and identify close contacts. Close contacts are also then queued to be contacted for advice on self-isolation and what to do if they have symptoms.

Close contacts within the school setting are NOT identified by PHA Contact Tracing Service as they are identified by the PHA COVID-19 School Team following discussion with the principal.  

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18. Who contacts who when there is a confirmed case?

Callers from PHA Contact Tracing Service speak to all confirmed cases in Northern Ireland and gather information on close contacts. If the caller identifies that the case attends a school they may encourage them to alert their employer or their further or higher education institution, or if in school to alert the school.

When a school receives notification of a confirmed case of COVID-19 (in a pupil or member of staff, in the first instance, they should contact the Education Authority emergency helpline for COVID-19 suspected or confirmed cases on 028 9041 8056 or at confirmed.covid19@eani.org.uk  

They should then contact the PHA COVID-19 School Team to discuss the risk assessment and answer any questions that arise in relation to this.

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Travel

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19. Parents of a child in school travelled to a country that requires quarantine on return. Does the child need to quarantine if they did not travel?

No.

Check the Foreign and Commonwealth website for the latest guidance on quarantine requirements: www.gov.uk/guidance/travel-advice-novel-coronavirus

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Prevention

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20. Do pupils require a temperature check on arrival at school?

No. There is no scientific evidence to support temperature screening to detect COVID-19 or any other febrile illness.

Temperature readings measure skin rather than core body temperature. Natural fluctuations in temperature can occur among healthy individuals. Infected people who do not develop a fever or who do not show any symptoms would not be detected by a temperature reading and could unknowingly spread the virus.

Source: www.gov.uk

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21. Can support officers move between different schools during a day/week?

If support officers need to move between different school settings during the day to develop essential services and support then they absolutely should do that. This should be commensurate with following the essential control measures to limit transmission:  

  • Staying off work if the support officer or a member of their household is unwell with symptoms of COVID-19;
  • Maintaining regular hand hygiene;
  • Minimising contact between individuals and maintain social distancing where possible;
  • Considering use of face coverings;
  • Complying with advice to isolate if identified as a close contact by PHA Contact Tracing Service, PHA COVID-19 School Team or the STOPCovidNIApp.

Provided that everybody adheres to the precautions and these are services that cannot stop, it is appropriate that they travel between schools during a working day.

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22. A child has health problems that may put them at higher risk from COVID-19. Should they attend school?

The risk to children becoming severely ill from COVID-19 is very low - even in children with underlying health conditions. There are negative health impacts of being out of school. Schools are not currently considered high risk settings when compared to other workplace environments. Almost all children should now be able to return to school. This includes children who were previously advised to shield.

A small number of children with very serious health conditions will be advised not to return to school by their specialist paediatrician. This includes children who have recently received a solid organ transplant or children receiving chemotherapy. Most of these children would not be able to attend school even during “normal” years due to the risk of non-COVID-19 infections.

Children and adults identified as “clinically extremely vulnerable” were advised to shield in the Spring and early Summer. Shielding was paused for all adults and children in Northern Ireland from the 1st of August 2020. This means that children and young people can return to school or college at the start of this school year even if they:

  • were clinically extremely vulnerable and were on the shielded patient list
  • have family members who were clinically extremely vulnerable who were previously shielding

You can find more advice from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health here.

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23. A staff member has health problems that may put them at higher risk from COVID-19. What precautions does the school need to take?

The majority of staff should attend work including those that were on the shielding list. A risk assessment should be carried out between the staff member and their manager.  Adjustments may be required according to individual circumstances.

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24. What can children bring to school?

Frequent hand-washing and enhanced cleaning will help to reduce the risk of infection transmission.

Pupils should limit the amount of equipment they bring into school each day to essentials including school bags, pencil cases, lunch boxes, water bottles, hats, coats, books, stationery and mobile phones.

Pupils and teachers can take books and other shared resources home, although unnecessary sharing should be avoided, especially where this does not contribute to pupil education and development.

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25. Can children use sand play in school settings?   

The advice for early year (pre-school) and school settings is the same.

Frequent hand-washing and enhanced cleaning will help to reduce the risk of infection transmission. Children should wash their hands before engaging in sand play and after playing with sand.

Sand play has a high play value and therefore it may be used if:

  • There are individual trays for children OR ideally
  • The sand is changed on a daily basis
  • The pit or tray containing the sand is cleaned between uses
  • Dry sand is used rather than wet sand
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26. Can water play be used in school settings?

Water play can be used in school settings. The water should have soap added to the water before use to enhance cleaning ability and promote infection control.

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27. Can play dough be used in childcare settings?

Frequent hand-washing and enhanced cleaning will help to reduce the risk of infection transmission. Children should wash their hands thoroughly before playing with play dough and afterwards.

Children may use play dough, although they should have their own individual pots/plastic bags for the play dough, clearly labelled with their name to ensure they use the same dough each time.

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28. Can soft furnishings be used in a childcare setting?

Regular cleaning plays a vital role in limiting the transmission of COVID-19. Reducing clutter and removing difficult to clean items can make cleaning easier. Materials like soft furnishings can be difficult to clean.

Frequent hand-washing and enhanced cleaning will help to reduce the risk of infection transmission. Increase the frequency of cleaning of general room surfaces reduces the presence of the virus and the risk of contact.

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29. Can music classes continue at school?

Evidence suggests that there may be additional risk of infection in environments where singing, chanting, playing wind or brass instruments takes place.

Singing, wind and brass instrument playing can be undertaken in line with the following guidance that has been developed by the UK Government, available here.

Pupils can sing and play instruments both outdoors and indoors. Social distancing should be practiced and carried out in line with existing school bubble system. If indoors, ventilation should be increased by keeping doors and windows open. Wind and brass instruments shouldn’t be shared between pupils and should be thoroughly cleaned before and after use.

The EA ‘Music Unlocked’ guidance for schools, on restarting music which includes guidance on singing, instrumental and vocal lessons and ensembles, should also be consulted:

www.eani.org.uk/sites/default/files/2020-09/Music%20Unlocked_Guidance%20for%20Schools.pdf

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30. Can teaching practical elements continue in post-primary schools?

Schools need to assess the risk of transmission of COVID-19 against the risk of impaired learning and development from, in this case, not continuing practical classes.

If schools are able to introduce the following control measures in a sensible and proportionate way to limit transmission then practical classes can continue:  

  • Staying off school if the individual or a member of their household is unwell with symptoms of COVID-19
  • Maintaining regular hand hygiene
  • Maintaining social distancing where possible
  • Considering use of face coverings in older children
  • Complying with advice to isolate if identified as a close contact by PHA Contact Tracing Service, PHA COVID-19 School Team or the STOPCovidNIApp
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Home Testing Kits

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31. What should I do with the home testing kits?

The schools testing programme has recently issued specific guidance in relation to this initiative. This guidance is available on DE website www.education-ni.gov.uk/publications/covid19-home-test-kits-national-testing-initiative  

The guidance includes:

  • What responsibilities fall and do not fall to schools under this initiative
  • Other testing options
  • Storage of the test kits
  • Guidance on when to provide a test kit
  • Arrangements for replenishment

The rationale of providing the kits to schools is to ensure that a symptomatic member of staff or child who doesn’t have transport, and isn’t able to travel to one of the drive through testing sites can receive a COVID-19 test. The preference is for the individual to use of one of the drive-through test centres, but we are conscious that not everyone in Northern Ireland has access to a car and private transport, so we need to provide an alternative. 

The only requirement of a school in relation to these kits is to distribute to a parent or member of staff who meets the requirement for one. Each kit contains instructions for the individual and a post-it envelope. These kits are the same as those you can buy or order online and use of them expedites the test process.

 

 

 

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Downloads

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PHA COVID school information pack.pdf 429.24 KB