Schools and COVID-security

The ‘big return’ of our children and young people to schools – many of them after a previously unthinkable five-month gap – is only a couple of weeks away.

While most of us accept that it’s vital our youngsters don’t miss out on any more learning, and the social interactions that go with it, the whole exercise isn’t without its dilemmas. Not least of those the fact that the threat of COVID-19 infection is still ‘waiting in the wings’, with spikes currently happening in selected parts of the United Kingdom widely expected to gather momentum in the winter months.

Most of the intelligence the experts have amassed about the coronavirus so far suggests it doesn’t affect children nearly as often, or as badly, as it does adults, and certain higher-risk groups of adults at that. Even that, though, is not clear cut, given that there have been highly publicised cases of children and teenagers dying of the disease, or being hit by complications like the Kawasaki disease, thought to be brought on by it.

And even if our kids are unlikely to get it, they are thought to be ‘super-spreaders’. This, of course, puts those around them – from teachers to the elderly relatives who often care for and, in some cases live with, them, at greater risk of catching and becoming seriously ill with the coronavirus.

Teachers and parents alike have expressed concerns, with teaching unions demanding additional clarity around just what will be expected of their colleagues, come September.

However, as this momentous change is both necessary and inevitable, how can educational establishments build confidence, among everyone linked to their school community, that things will be OK?

What’s happened so far?

Education settings were closed down in March this year, to all but vulnerable children and those of key workers. Because the number of children attending school during that time was small, schools were able to maintain social distancing and keep them in small groups or ‘bubbles’, minimising the amount of interaction and therefore germ-sharing between them.

Then, in June, as we passed the Government’s five tests, including an ‘R’ or community reproduction rate below one, and the UK’s coronavirus alert level was reduced from 4 to 3, certain whole primary school classes were allowed to return. Secondary schools and further education establishments were enabled to begin offering some face-to-face contact again, mainly for students preparing for key exams.

What can be done to minimise the risk as student numbers increase?

The truth is that, while most schools have now had a practice run, with lessons for selected year groups and the children of key workers, official guidance on how to make school environments as safe as possible when the full quotient of students return, still needs some fleshing out. Teachers and parents alike will be concerned about the logistics of enforcing COVID-secure rules around social distancing and additional personal and workspace hygiene in packed places of education serving children as young as three years old.

Nevertheless, that return is being made compulsory from September, and everyone involved must play their part in making this possible.

Like the process many businesses and other workplaces have already gone through, each educational management team is required to carry out a risk assessment and, from that, lay out the controls and processes they are going to put in place in their individual settings, to minimise the risks it identifies. In another recent blog, we look in detail at our own recommendations – based on our experience over the last five months in a range of other environments, from care homes to manufacturers – for specific things teams can look at doing.

However, these are the 10, high-level steps the Government’s guidance recommends as part of its coronavirus-related ‘System of Controls’:

1. 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
2. Clean hands thoroughly more often than usual
3. Ensure good respiratory hygiene by promoting the ‘catch it, kill it, bin it’ approach
4. Introduce enhanced cleaning, including cleaning frequently-touched surfaces often
5. Minimise contact between groups where possible
6. Where necessary, wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE)
7. Engage with the NHS Test and Trace system
8. Deal appropriately with confirmed cases of coronavirus within the setting and wider community
9. Contain any outbreak by following local health protection team advice
10. Notify Ofsted.

Other considerations the Government and Public Health England have put forward include things like removing items from education settings that could be difficult to keep clean and infection-free, such as rugs, bean bags, soft toys or toys with lots of small parts, nooks and crannies.

Places of education are also advised to keep unnecessary visitors and external providers to a minimum, and to limit access by parents and guardians to the internal school environment. The two key risks they are protecting against are ‘direct transmission’ (where droplets are spread through the air by coughing and sneezing in close proximity to someone else), and ‘indirect transmission’, where COVID-19 germs are captured on surfaces – where they can live for some time – and then passed to others when they touch those items.

While normal class sizes are now allowed, and smaller bubbles are no longer required, there is also to be minimal mixing between different year groups. The Government has said schools should ‘exercise judgement’ to ensure high safety standards are maintained, wherever the physical layout of classrooms and other spaces doesn’t allow for children to be kept a safe distance apart.

Faith in our dedicated school staff

“We work closely with a number of schools and further education providers and, in reality, since June, their teams have been working hard to prepare their own, detailed strategies. They’ve been looking at how they can implement this high-level advice in their own, unique school, further education – or indeed – higher education establishment,” said our Director Janette Elliott.

“While this is a hard nut to crack due to the nature of educational environment, including very young children, but it’s critical to do so because of the central role children play in our Society.

“Not only do we need to protect them, but they are the hub of families, with the potential to infect some of the most vulnerable people – from elderly and medically-vulnerable members of their own families, to teachers with underlying health conditions.

“Minimising this risk will necessitate a fundamental re-think of the way our schools operate – from child sickness policies to class sizes and even accepting cash payments for things like school dinners. The more support and clarity educational management teams can be given in preparing for this particularly challenging aspect of the ‘new normal’, the better.”

In order to play our part in helping schools to prepare, as hygiene strategy experts, we have pulled together a special COVID-secure blog for schools and other education environments, offering helpful hints and tips designed to give teachers, support staff and parents some much-needed ideas, suggestions and, above all, peace of mind.

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 

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