It goes without saying that the coronavirus pandemic has ushered in an age of unprecedented change and uncertainty for both staff and students. The sudden and unexpected closing of schools from early 2020 into the first part of this year, placed significant strain on school teams to maintain some form of remote teaching, and children isolated and lacking in many of the social and learning experiences they take for granted in normal times. Then, the equally sudden return to the classroom, which required everyone to get to grips with all manner of precautionary measures, all amidst the stop start, stop start of individual and bubble isolations as staff members, pupils and their families tested positive or were exposed to the virus.
Of course, the rapid roll-out of the UK’s COVID-19 vaccination programme has brought fresh hope and, at the time of writing, although cases were rising dramatically across the country, the number of hospitalisations has so far not translated into the kinds of serious illness numbers we saw earlier on in the pandemic.
School staff, parents and pupils alike had much to celebrate as they made it to the summer holiday despite the significant disruption that characterised the early part of the year. However, those few weeks of freedom and the chance they offered to regroup ready for the next onslaught, are about to come to an end. It is finally time to step back into the classroom and, while school teams will no doubt still have to work incredibly hard to keep everyone in their learning communities safe, the likelihood is that things will be different come Autumn, compared to what we’ve seen so far, as the collective battle against COVID enters a new phase, and the management of infection from it becomes more ‘BAU’
What seemed impossible, at times, over the past 18 months, is now happening. Many restrictions in the UK have now been lifted, life at large is returning to some semblance of normality and there is a fighting chance that this could mark the start of a more normal school year for pupils. However, COVID has not gone away despite the undoubted progress we’ve made, and it’s almost certain its effects will still be felt for some time to come. There is the threat of a winter resurgence which, coupled with the normal rise in other winter ailments, will place schools and other services, as well as businesses under fresh strain. And, whether that comes to fruition or not, it’s almost certain that the threat of catching this and future strains of the coronavirus is something we’re all going to have to learn to live with for many years to come.
So what will be different this academic year?
The requirement for a system of ‘bubbles’ – where children only mix within a fixed year or class group – has ended, as has the need to stagger start and finish -times, or avoid mixing at lunchtimes or in the playground.
Face coverings are no longer advised for staff or pupils in school, although they’re still recommended in crowded spaces such as on school buses.
Any pupil under 18 who tests positive for Covid will continue to be contacted by NHS Test and Trace and told to isolate. The child – or their parents – will be asked to provide information about close contacts at school and elsewhere, and their contact details, if known.
Under-18s who are named as close contacts will be asked to take a PCR test, but will not have to self-isolate unless they themselves test positive.
Secondary school pupils and staff are being asked to continue self-testing twice a week, beginning a week before the start of term. This advice will be reviewed at the end of September.
What should schools do to continue minimising the risk to staff and students?
School have already carried out a formal COVID-19 risk assessment and, from that, laid out their controls and processes to help minimise the risk. In our blog from last summer, we provided some suggestions of our own.
And, in reality, while the landscape has changed, many of these steps continue to make a lot of sense. So, we would urge school leadership teams to review their original risk assessments and consider which elements it makes sense to continue with, in a more business-as-usual world. In reality, many of the steps schools have taken, make sense for any environment where a lot of people are mixing, coronavirus pandemic or not.
Here is our list of the things – from the Government’s original COVID guidance – that we believe it makes sense to continue doing, regardless. After all, they are not too onerous to maintain and staff and pupils alike are now familiar with operating in this way:
- Minimise contact with individuals who are unwell, by ensuring those with coronavirus (COVID-19) symptoms, or who have someone in their household who does, do not attend [educational] settings
- Clean hands thoroughly more often than usual
- Ensure good respiratory hygiene by promoting the ‘catch it, kill it, bin it’ approach
- Introduce enhanced cleaning, including cleaning frequently-touched surfaces often
- Minimise contact between groups where possible
- Where necessary, for example in confined spaces without good ventilation, wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) such as a mask
- Continue to engage with the NHS Test and Trace system – while, as we’ve all seen in the news, the so-called ‘pingdemic’ did cause widespread disruption for a while, the service, the algorithm used by its app and the advice given to those who have been in contact with someone testing positive, has since been adapted to be less disruptive
- Deal appropriately with confirmed cases of coronavirus within the setting and wider community – for example, make sure anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 does not come into school for the required amount of time
- Contain any outbreak by following local health protection team advice
- Notify Ofsted.
Of course, since the Government has now lifted all restrictions, these recommendations are not at all obligatory, though they will still minimise the risk.
Alongside this, our hygiene expert, Chris Elliott, has outlined some measures that can easily be put in place to reassure all parties.
‘Be prepared, but there’s no need to go over the top’
“For the reassurance of students, staff, and parents, it’s a good idea to keep cleaning products close by. This includes antiviral products too, because, even though COVID cases are dropping, it’s still very important to give everyone the means to help keep this and other, more common viruses such as the flu, at bay.
“Small gestures such as having tissues and hand sanitiser available at desks will give everybody that extra sense of security and protection. We’ve got to be aware that this year has been tough for a lot of people, and the thought of coming back into schools to learn or teach might be quite daunting still; that’s why extra measures such as this will put a lot of people’s minds at ease, and make the transition back into normality a little smoother.
“With this in mind, my advice would be to be prepared, but there’s no need to go over the top. Don’t panic and overstock, but just think and plan ahead and get orders for essentials in with plenty of time, so that providers like ourselves can make sure we have adequate supplies available, to avoid running into shortages as we edge into the winter months.”
It’s really now up to everyone’s own discretion as to which specific aspects of the Government’s guidance they implement, but our recent COVID-secure blog contains plenty of useful hints and tips. We published it at the height of the pandemic to give teachers, support staff and parents some much-needed ideas, suggestions and peace of mind, and many of the ideas still stand.
If you represent a school or other educational provider and would like some insights and advice on managing the back to school challenge effectively, get in touch with us via 01482 327580 or firstname.lastname@example.org