Covid-19: Reopening schools guidance
Drafted: 12th May 2020
Since becoming one of ISBA’s (Independent Schools Bursars’ Association) Trusted Advisors early in 2020, we were delighted to be asked to prepare some risk assessment guidance at the beginning of May to help their members prepare for partial re-opening. The very scenario schools now find themselves in. On reading the Government’s guidance on reopening schools this morning, we were equally delighted (and a little relieved) to see how our advice was so aligned with that of the Government.
Pharos is often asked to provide practical solutions to complex situations. In writing the guidance for ISBA and unpicking the impact social distancing will have on both facilities management and the day-to-day functioning of a school, it quickly became clear that this is a very complex situation indeed that will require careful consideration before opening the school gates.
Some of the challenges we identified included:
- How to ‘phase’ the return to best facilitate social distancing?
- What changes can/should be made to the site/facilities to accommodate social distancing?
- What wider curriculum/sports provision can be provided safely?
- How will catering be managed?
- How will playtimes be managed?
- What impact will all of this have on the timetable?
- How to engage all the stakeholders so they are informed and prepared.
- What will school really look and feel like in the ‘new normal’?
Of course opening schools in a limited capacity before the summer holidays (for Reception, Y1 and Y6 in primaries and Y10 and Y12 in secondaries) will provide an opportunity to test new procedures and protocols before the next phase of opening with more pupils while still adopting social distancing practices. Naturally we must all remember the human element of all this. Parents will have doubts and concerns and many are likely to think more than twice before simply sending their children back to school. They will want to know exactly what the school is doing to keep people safe. Likewise for staff who will no doubt have their own concerns. Rarely has health and safety at work been so high on people’s priorities: this hits the very core of all that is important to schools, the people who work in them and the children who attend them. Throughout all this, their welfare should come first.
Before we delved into the detailed issues, considerations and possible control measures, we identified four possible reopening profiles for schools.
Schools will of course need to maintain a flexible approach to reopening plans. This will include the potential for schools to be closed again after reopening in response to secondary virus outbreaks, either locally or nationally, or to send whole classes/groups back home to self isolate for 14 days if a pupil or staff member is tested positive for coronavirus from within that class/group.
Pharos Response’s COVID-19 school reopening safety model – a hierarchy of controls
Our approach to applying control measures to address the potential risks associated with school reopening followed a ‘hierarchy of controls’, a model that will be recognised by any H&S professional. We adapted this model and applied it specifically to the COVID risk, taking a broader approach than the Government’s more recent hierarchy that focuses primarily on the ‘separation’ and ‘hygiene’ categories in our model below. The relative effectiveness of each control measure in reducing the potential spread of the virus in a reopened school decreases at each stage; progressing from ‘communication’ down to ‘response’.
The Government issued guidance on implementing such protective control measures in schools during reopening on 11th May and official sources of advice should of course be the primary resource used by schools.
We produced a full risk assessment for ISBA Members to consider for their schools, and here is a summary based upon our hierarchical model. We will be writing additional articles over the coming weeks with more detail on each of the six control categories but please feel free to contact us if you would like to know more in the meantime.
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Although not a physical control measure, communication will be of paramount importance when schools reopen; communicating with staff, parents and pupils. This should recognise that some will be anxious about attending and explain the opening plan and logistics, what measures will be in place when they return and how to get more information if required. This could be via email and/or video message from the Headteacher. Staff should be consulted in advance with details of opening plans and be given the opportunity to attend training, ask questions and provide feedback to management, and it is likely that days will be required in school before welcoming back pupils.
Individuals with symptoms, living with others who have symptoms or those in a higher risk group should not attend the school and follow Government advice. This should be a ‘rule’ established by the school and firmly communicated to staff, parents and pupils and covered in a new COVID-specific policy.
Separation of people ‘by design’ is a principle that should be strived for. Physical, logistical and timetable/programming adjustments made to improve social distancing, to limit shared surface contact and to reduce the frequency of person-to-person contact by reducing the number of individuals in enclosed spaces, adjusting timetables, room layout, and the flow of people. Our ISBA guidance document identified several of the different strategies now advised by the Government such as reduced class sizes, staggered arrival/departure/lunch/break times. Pharos has long-established connections with the outdoor education sector and we highlighted the wide benefits of taking learning outside the classroom, highlighting the excellent work of the Council for Learning Outside the Classroom. We also highlighted the possibility of assemblies or other opportunities for Headteacher messaging to be delivered through pre-recorded videos in class where possible.
Enhanced personal hygiene by promoting handwashing, respiratory etiquette, use of tissues, safe disposal of products and providing pupils with the resources and time for these to be used effectively throughout the day. This, combined with enhanced cleaning of hard contact surfaces will reduce the opportunity for virus transmission. Our document for ISBA identified the need for schools to procure advanced supplies of cleaning materials and portable hand washing sinks for corridors to increase the capacity for handwashing beyond school washrooms. We included a risk assessment that identified the need to increase classroom ventilation and how to manage physical pinch points such as entrances or other places where high pupil volumes may normally create queues.
These are physical protective measures to reduce the opportunity of the virus passing onto individuals when coming into contact with it. Protection includes the wearing of face masks when directed by the Government but otherwise, specific PPE should be limited to individuals at higher risk or when staff are conducting higher risk activities such as cleaning or providing first aid. This is the ‘last line of defence’ and should not be used in isolation without the previous control strategies.
This included advisory action to temporarily isolate from other pupils/staff and then return home individuals who present with symptoms whilst at school. A dedicated COVID sick room should be established, separate from the routine sick room where non-COVID related sickness and injuries can be attended to. Schools are advised to maintain a dynamic response plan, with the potential being maintained of closing again if directed to do so or by decision in response to factors such as staffing levels or local changes.
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Schools who are members of ISBA can of course download the full guidance document (which will be updated as necessary as more information comes to light) from the ISBA website.
School clients of Pharos Response will continue to be supported throughout the process by us directly, sharing thought pieces and guidance documents to assist with planning the next stage in response to COVID-19.
If other schools have any specific questions that we may be able to assist with then we would be happy to do so – just drop us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will come back to you as soon as we are able to.
These are uncertain times for us all and we are keen to help and assist where we can.