Rapid Covid testing begins in special schools
SPECIAL schools have begun to receive Covid tests designed to identify asymptomatic cases quickly.
All staff and pupils are to be offered regular testing using a new technology called Lamp (loop-mediated isothermal amplification).
Lamp is a saliva-based, non-invasive test and is expected to be easier than swabs for children.
The Education Authority (EA) and Public Health Agency (PHA) announced that the scheme was being rolled out following a five-school pilot.
The tests will find asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic cases so they can be isolated, along with their contacts, as quickly as possible, reducing the risk of transmission.
It is expected to run in schools until June.
Dr Joanne McClean, consultant in public health medicine with the PHA, said the sacrifices people had made during the lockdown were making a difference, and infection rates had 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."
EA assistant director Kim Scott said the Lamp testing is completely voluntary.
"EA would encourage all school staff, support staff and pupils to take part to reduce the spread of Covid-19. 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," she said.
Pupils in mainstream schools will be given twice-weekly `lateral flow' testing when they return from Monday.
Those in Years 12-14 will be the first to take part, with schools expected to begin testing in earnest for all year groups immediately after Easter.
Principals planning for pupils' return next week have been offered a two-hour online training session to familiarise themselves with what they describe as a "major logistical operation".
Education minister Peter Weir has said while there might be challenges, these tests will add a further level of Covid security to schools.
"While it is for each family to decide if they wish for their child to participate in the testing, it will be of benefit to all those in schools for us to be able to break the chain of transmission of the virus by identifying all those who may be asymptomatic," he said.