Coronavirus: Top 10 tips to keep schools safe

Thank you to schools

Firstly, schools and the amazing people who run and work within them should be congratulated for getting through the past eight months. The pace of change demanded of schools has been unprecedented and the resolve of staff to achieve this is awe-inspiring. I have witnessed this first-hand working directly with school clients to support their coronavirus preparedness and positive case response, as a parent of children in primary and secondary schools, a Trustee of a MAT, a Governor of a primary and a friend to many teachers. Congratulations and thank you!

Sharing our expertise

In recognition of the fact that there is still some way to go before we’re on top of this wretched virus and of the daily challenges you face in the classroom in the meantime, this article aims to help by sharing some common pitfalls we have identified in schools’ COVID management plans based upon a range of school compliance audits carried out since September. By sharing these tips to look out for and avoid, we hope that when (not if) a positive case strikes, this article might just help reduce the number of pupils sent home, or the need to close a full bubble, or in more extreme cases, help prevent the school from having to close.

Coronavirus management support for schools

Since September, schools have been diligently applying the Government’s comprehensive guidance on full reopening, whilst also juggling the significant task of keeping the school fully operational. Pharos Response, risk and reputation management specialists, have been assisting client schools on their COVID management response journey from the virus’ arrival after the first positive cases in February. Since September, this support has primarily taken two forms:

Risk assessments, management plans and on the ground operations

We have been working with schools to help ensure their COVID risk assessments, management plans and on the ground operations are compliant with Government guidance (note although it is called ‘guidance’, some of it is mandatory). This has included carrying out audits and providing feedback to schools, both remotely of their plans and by visiting schools to see how the plans are being executed.

Coronavirus response assistance

In addition, we have adapted our 24/7 critical incident support service to include Coronavirus response assistance (without extra charge for schools). This allows schools who have a positive case/s to call our team when they have been unable to reach the DfE or local public health helplines for some early direction based on our experience. Naturally, the public health authorities are the right agencies to direct schools but we have also been helping draft communications to parents and to manage the media. For schools, knowing the Pharos team is always contactable has been highly reassuring and a lifeline at times when they have needed immediate support. For Pharos, we’ve learned a huge amount about the whole process through these experiences, which in turn helps us to assist others.

  • Find out more about Pharos Response here.

Top 10 tips for safe Coronavirus management response in schools

The following list summarises the most common issues we’ve seen in schools. All these points may help reduce risk of transmission and the scale of isolation following a confirmed positive case which, if we are realistic, is inevitable this winter. These are all points that should be covered in your risk assessment and that were probably followed to the letter in the first two weeks of opening but may have slipped as time has passed, and perhaps a bit of complacency has set in with some colleagues; this is only natural.

In our experience, most schools that have remained vigilant on these key points have only needed to send home close contacts in the event of a positive case after consultation with public health, rather than shut down a whole bubble. This is clearly far less disruptive to school life.

Top of the list: Teachers not distancing from each other.

Teachers are great at recognising the importance of distancing from pupils where possible but procedures often forget to reinforce the importance of teachers distancing from each other. This is actually more important as teachers mixing with others act as a bridge between bubbles. So, teachers should maintain at least 2m from each other at all times. Failure to do so means that more people may need to isolate in the event of a positive case. Not only does this increase the risk of wider transmission but if too many teachers have to isolate, clearly ongoing safe operation of the school can become increasingly difficult. Specific issues to consider here will include staff meetings, staff rooms, informal out of hours staff social activity and office use, which should be carefully risk assessed.

Not tracking close contacts

Any pupils attending wraparound care/clubs should also be logged so it is known when bubbles are breached and additional close contacts are made. Ideally when in wraparound care/clubs, pupils should stay within their class close contact group, their bubble or a different, constant small group in order to minimise further bubble bridges. This will further help reduce the number of people who might need to isolate in the event of a positive case.Ideally pupils should remain seated with the same close  contacts and work in consistent groups rather than rotate around the bubble. This means that contact with the whole bubble is likely to be more distanced and any close proximity is likely to be very brief, so will reduce risk. Therefore, so long as these groups are known to the teacher, in the event of a positive case you can identify close contacts to public health teams and it is more likely that only they will need to isolate, not the whole bubble.

Hand hygiene complacency

This should still be a requirement, not a choice, and should happen when entering the school, before and after eating, when visiting the toilet, changing rooms and after touching anything that might have been touched by others. Ideally this should use old-fashioned soap and water but where this is not possible, sanitiser containing the recommended alcohol content (avoid alcohol free sanitiser). In September when school opened, there were far fewer cases of COVID-19 than there is now, so in real terms, we should be more vigilant now than ever.

Rooms not being ventilated

Ideally, as many windows and doors as possible in classrooms should be open, so long as this doesn’t breach fire/security risk assessments. Where good airflow is difficult to achieve, a fan in the window/door pointing out will help pull stale air out of the room and improve circulation. However, don’t push this air into a neighbouring classroom! Clearly this will get harder as the temperature drops but a balanced decision should be made that is informed by the school risk assessment. Every practicable step should be taken to maximise ventilation in classrooms and as a minimum by fully opening all windows/doors during breaks and before and after school if it is safe to do so.

Lack of cleaning of shared resources

While it might be tricky in real terms, if resources are shared between pupils, even within a bubble, they should be sanitised first. Ideally pupils will have their own equipment rather than need to share but this won’t always be possible. Tablets/ computers/ mice etc should all be wiped with sanitising wipes between users (suggest silicone keyboard covers to prevent damage to laptops).

Relaxing restrictions on parents/visitors in school

A similar tightly controlled system should be in place for receipt of deliveries and post or parcels with outer packaging being disposed of safely before allowed into the open school, or left safely in isolation for 48/72 hours depending on the materials.Visitors into school should still be carefully controlled, even as the weather deteriorates. It might be possible to create a ‘warm zone’ where visitors are allowed to enter, receive their COVID brief before entering a dedicated ‘warm zone room’ to meet staff for approved appointments only. This precludes them from needing to enter and pass through the main school site. Visitor sign-in should be managed to reduce shared contact points, so any touch-screens are sanitised between use or visitor books are written in by office staff only.

Relaxed cleaning of common touchpoints

Schools set out with the intentions to clean regular touch points frequently and this is often documented in risk assessments but this is a task that is easy to let slide. Are toilets, handrails and door handles really cleaned as regularly they should be for the use under COVID conditions? Are doors propped open with wedges where safe to do so to avoid the need to touch handles?

Play equipment use

Many schools allocated specific play items or outdoor facilities to particular bubbles to avoid the need to sanitise between use. This will be something that is hard to enforce as the weeks pass, but it is essential that these restrictions either remain in place or they are sanitised regularly between use, otherwise these hard surfaces form a bridge between bubbles.

Not sanitising shared rooms between use

High use rooms such as the lunch room or hall are likely to be used back-to-back by different bubbles but are they being properly cleaned between each bubble use? Tables and chairs should be wiped with sanitising spray, cutlery trays should not be shared across bubbles and any touched surfaces such as sauce bottles etc wiped down. Again, these practices were widely in place at the outset but standards, especially ones as time consuming as these, can often slip over time.

Double controls of toilets

Many schools are restricting the number of people allowed in the washrooms at once, which makes perfect sense. We have seen that many schools have also decommissioned sinks to achieve social distancing. However, if effective controls are in place to restrict use, then it is not helpful to also close down sinks, this simply requires everyone to use the fewer sinks available, which increases potential for viral loading at each sink. So in this case, it is best to implement only one of those control measures, not both.

Find out more about Pharos Response.

Pharos Response provides a unique range of services to help schools prevent incidents happening on and off-site, to train and prepare your SLT to manage critical incidents though training and simulation exercises (including lockdown) and also to provide specialist support 24/7 to help you respond immediately to incidents, from COVID to coach crashes.

Speak to our team about Pharos Response and their services.

Juniper Education are thrilled to partner with Pharos Response and give schools peace of mind that they can prevent, prepare and respond to critical incidences through specialist training and 24/7 support.