Published: 19:22, 05 March 2021
| Updated: 19:24, 05 March 2021
Staff at Maidstone Grammar Schools for Girls have been testing up to 20 pupils a day for months for Covid-19, but next week that number will shoot up to around 500 each day.
Across the country schools are preparing to welcome back pupils on Monday, after months of home learning. As part of this plan, students will be tested three times in school when they return and then home testing kits will be provided, for pupils to be tested twice a week.
At Maidstone Grammar School for Girls, in Buckland Road, the mass testing began today. Some ten extra staff have been hired just to facilitate the lateral flow tests, which provide a rapid result, and the assembly hall has been transformed into a testing site, with eight booths.
Hayley Crabb, in normal times is the school's senior science technician but, as well as her day job, is now in charge of co-ordinating the its testing effort.
She says that since January the school has been testing vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers as well as staff on site.
Mrs Crabb says organising these tests has allowed the school to get prepared for the mass testing, with pupils coming in from home.
Some 482 pupils from Year 10, Year 11 and 12 were tested today, but next week there will be as many as 566 a day. Having timed earlier tests, they realised each test takes about five minutes to complete and a timetable was drawn up.
For 10 days, the site will be open throughout the day with pupils given a time slot. After those ten days, pupils will be given home testing kits.
Staff manning the booths, handling the swabs and teaching the students how to take the tests are a mixture of administrative staff and technicians in other departments, as well as employees recruited solely for the role.
Mrs Crabb had to make sure there was enough space and PPE for the operation, as well as ensuring staff were trained to the correct standard.
Each time staff leave the hall they have to bin their PPE and put on a new set when they come back. The screen and mirrors at the booths must be sterilised after each pupil.
Mrs Crabb said: "With a science background you know how viruses work and how to clean down and sterilise your work area."
The home tests will continue at least until June 21, and could go on until the summer holidays, she said.
She said: "At the start we were a bit apprehensive, but now we have got into it and we like the fact it's under our control.
"It's better than sitting at home in four walls and it gives us purpose and it means we are doing something to help our school.
"In some ways I am very proud of what we have accomplished. It's nice to be able to use our scientific knowledge for something like this."
Sarah Akinfaye, 15, was having a test taken today and she says she's keen to get back to school to ensure she's prepared for her GCSEs next year.
When asked how learning at home has been, she said: "Stressful, difficult, it does take kind of a toll on your mental capacity to concentrate for long periods of time without anyone telling you to 'do your work, do your work'".
She said she was looking forward to "going back, seeing friends, interacting".
Speaking about the school's testing site, she said: "I looked in and thought wow, everyone's really prepared for this."
Lauren Lewis, 15, is a child of key workers and has been coming to school during the pandemic.
She said it's been easier to learn at school rather than at home, where she's studying by herself.
Speaking about visiting the site today she said: "It's been a bit overwhelming because obviously I've been coming in and getting tests and it's been quiet and now everyone is coming in and it's really busy and there's so many more staff doing it, it's crazy, but I think it's working really well."
Head teacher Deborah Stanley said today's testing had gone very smoothly and the operation was efficient and well organised.
She hopes the testing will mean the school can stay open for longer and keep more children in the classroom.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has said testing in schools would "provide yet another layer of reassurance to parents and education staff that schools are as safe as possible".