Guest Post: COVID precautions in Schools

This is an anonymous blog that I’ve been asked to host by the partner of a teacher friend.  They work within the NHS, and wanted to pass some guidance on to teachers and schools. They, and I, hope it helps.

 

So, we are in the middle of a global pandemic and it feels like everything is scary and confusing.  You have been asked to think of ways of working to ensure staff and pupils are kept safe but you are stuck in an inflexible system of tradition and “this is the way we do things”.

STOP! Turn everything you know on it’s head.  “This is the way we do things” does not exist anymore.  The ways of working that you know need to change and fast.  I am speaking from the experience of working in the NHS during the COVID pandemic.  I have seen things that would take a year or more to get signed off happen overnight; whole departments changed, staff reallocated to different jobs, new ways of working.  It has been tough but worthwhile.  It may feel unnatural not to challenge or to do something that seems different to what you would usually do but unfortunately viruses don’t play by the same rules as we do, and changes need to happen fast!

Here are a few tips to hopefully help you to get your department ready.  There are 100s of pages of guidance and “COVID secure” advice, fortunately I have lived and breathed it for the past 9 months so hopefully this will support or at least make you feel like you have the permission you need to make changes.   All these things mentioned below need to be considered as a bundle.  Masks, hygiene and social distancing and bubbles go hand in hand, doing one does not mean you don’t have to do the others.

 

Sickness and absence

Don’t be a martyr!! This is probably one of the biggest problems for workers.  COVID has a range of symptoms from mild to life threatening.  A lot of people fall into the mild group.  Before the virus I am sure if you had a bit of a cough or felt you might have a temperature you wouldn’t dream of staying home but things have changed.  IF YOU HAVE SYMPTOMS OF COVID-19 STAY AT HOME AND GET TESTED! Do not soldier on and see how you go.  Isolating symptomatic individuals is the best defence we have against COVID-19.  If you come in and infect a class or the staff room that is a lot more disruptive than you missing a week or so of work.

  • Sickness and absence policy and how this is managed needs to change for a while. Yes there is a measure to improve attendance etc but there has to be flexibility.  Don’t start sickness and absence processes on staff or pupils that need to stay home due to symptoms or a symptomatic family member.  Yes the figures may look bad but the school closing or a member of the community dying is a whole lot worse.
  • Business continuity: All work is valid, if someone is isolating, shielding or looking after family who are sick, is there work they can be given to do from home if they still want to and can work? Could they design resources, mark assessments or design or develop CPD, freeing up workload from those still in school?
  • The test and trace criteria is strict for who needs to isolate and in which circumstances if someone has been in contact with a case. It has taken out whole departments in hospitals throughout the country.  It applies to everyone and people can be fined for not complying.

This requires a big cultural shift and compassion but again; would you prefer a minor inconvenience of a few people off or the massive upheaval of closing and deep cleaning a school for an unknown amount of time with mass testing?

 

Social distancing

This will be tricky in schools due to class sizes but a lot of work has gone into bubbles.

  • If you have the luxury of space use it! Spread pupils out, use tape to mark the floors to measure 2 meters if need be (something we have done in my office) . Take desk spaces out of use. Can you remove furniture such as cupboards or bookcases to give more floorspace? Are there spaces such as sports halls or the library that could be used instead of your smallest classrooms?
  • Stagger start times, but let families drop all their kids off at once so they aren’t waiting around in groups outside. Be pragmatic.
  • Stagger lesson changeover times if you are still going to have pupils moving around the school. It may not be possible but it is something to consider.  Do year 10 need to be in the corridor at the same time as year 7? Could year 7 do double Maths on Monday morning instead of Maths and then move across the school for history.  I appreciate timetables are never that simple but it is something you have control over.
  • Open the windows! If you can and ventilation is poor, keep the windows in your room open to increase air circulation.  This will help lower the risk. This may require extra heating, or fixing broken windows, but poor ventilation is a proven factor in infection.
  • Masks… I have avoided this debate so far but pupils will be fine wearing masks. Do you really need permission from the government to implement mask wearing?  As a society we are having a cultural shift to wearing masks.  It is the new normal for everyone.  Lots of students will (rightly) feel safer in masks.
  • There are some arguments for and against masks but things like safety- we let pupils wear ties, use acid and Bunsen burners….. My brother was stabbed in the hand with a compass in secondary school… there are much more dangerous things than a piece of cloth with some ear loops pupils have access to. Be sensible about it all though- don’t force your pupils with valid reasons not to wear one to wear one.  There are affordability factors for some pupils, consider relaxing the uniform rules- of course nothing rude and discourage kids from bringing in designer masks that may get lost or stolen but if a pupil comes in wearing a lime green mask  but your uniform is strictly black and white- in the context of the global pandemic does it really matter?  If affordability is an issue- local groups have been keen to help out and donate home made masks, this could be something you could explore.  If the school can afford to provide each pupil with a re usable mask or two this is something that could be considered. There is a textiles lessons to be had here…..
  • Visors aren’t a suitable alternative to masks. They could be worn as well as masks, but not instead of.

 

Meetings and people on site

There is no reason to be having large staff group meetings whilst we are dealing with this pandemic. This has been one of the most interesting changes I have experienced in the past few months.  Where possible most meetings have been moved to platforms like Microsoft Teams, staff have been provided with virtual access to the work drives so they can work from home.  I feel it has improved efficiency, you are less likely to get the redundant chit chat you get in a face to face meeting, it saves paper as screens can be shared and it saves time.

Lots of meetings could also be e-mails….

  • It takes a cultural shift. Yes you usually get every teacher in the hall on Wednesday after 3pm so they can be talked to by the latest guru in behaviour management but you don’t really need to do that…. These things can be done as webinars, pre-recorded teaching sessions staff can access whenever they like but they still can tick the box to say they had some CPD.  This isn’t forever and an is an easy win to make changes where you are able to reduce risks.  This could also be an opportunity to really empower your staff and let them take control of their CPD, let them chose what to do, and see what happens. You’ll almost definitely be pleasantly surprised, I have been, people want to get better.
  • If someone has first or last period free and nothing planned after – let them come in late or go home early and work from home for that bit of time. This will reduce the amount of people in one place at the same time  g. the 8am queue for the photo copier. Teachers do a lot of work outside of 9am-3pm and are trusted to organise their time for these things, no one is not putting the time in.
  • Limit the amount of time staff spend on site in general – if staff are in 3 hours early and stay 3 hours late, then that’s extra exposure.
  • Do all of your supporting staff need to be on site 9-5 Monday to Friday? Can finance or HR work at home, at least part of the time, work a Saturday or Sunday if convenient… A lot of my admin team work the odd day from home or come in at the weekend to get work done instead of a weekday.  It reduces the amount of people in the office and supports us to comply with “COVID secure” rules in our offices.
  • Try and limit the amount of visitors coming in to schools who aren’t a part of the bubbles you have in place.  If you do have visitors e.g. builders, repair men, plan the work so they come in certain entrances and exits to limit their exposure to the school.  Insist on face coverings, screening questions- ask visitors if they have a cough, temperature or feel unwell or if anyone in their household is isolating and ask them to reschedule if they say yes.  Do more meetings virtually, phone parents, do parents evening virtually or by phone or email, not half of the school crammed in to the hall!  It doesn’t have to be for ever.  In my experience people are generally accepting of changes due to COVID.

 

Cleaning and hygiene

I have heard some interesting stories about cling film on keyboards and kettles being removed from staff rooms. Please just be sensible.  This virus can spread by contact on surfaces (fomites), but it is mostly spread by droplets, good basic hygiene and cleaning will help reduce your risk of contracting it.

  • Invest in some cleaning wipes and alcohol gel or hand hygiene facilities for areas with shared items like kettles or keyboards.
  • Encourage staff to wipe things down between use:
    • Use the kettle- wipe the handle down (do a tea round)
    • Use a keyboard- Wipe it down after use, alcohol gel hands before and after use.
    • Everyone should wipe before they use something, and after they use something, so that way both people need to forget for the virus to spread. A lot easier and nicer than banning things.
    • There is no need to hide the microwave or kettle. Please keep some perspective!
  • Limit hot desking where possible.  I have to hot desk in my office so don’t know where I’m sitting one day to the next but alcohol gel and wipes are used to clean me and my space before and after use. It doesn’t take long. Just make sure you have an appropriate cleaning wipe- a damp bit of kitchen roll wont cut it!  Soap and water is good too for hands, I just use alcohol gel as an example as not all class rooms will have somewhere you can wash your hands.  Alcohol gel is good for general use but you must wash your hands with soap and water when your hands start to look or feel visibly dirty.
  • Gloves – Just no. They make no sense in a school situation. Just wash your hands. Gloves will give you a false sense of security, you just end up replacing dirty hands with dirty gloves. There is a whole lot to get in to with gloves and their good and bad points but please just take it as a no!
  • Occupational health. You will need to consider the possibility of skin issues arising in staff with all the added hand hygiene. Provide moisturisers or encourage staff to moisturise their hands when they have a break, free lesson or before work or when they get home. Check your occupational health services and how they can advise your vulnerable staff.  Slight changes may have to be made as you may have at risk and clinically vulnerable staff that need extras like removing from face to face teaching duties, alternative transport options such as limiting car shares or shuttle buses.
  • This will mean that some staff will have to be treated differently to others. It is a balancing act but the alternative is potential severe illness or death or them having to stay home.  Can class rooms be switched around so an at risk member of staff (e.g. someone with mild asthma, a high BMI or diabetes) has access to the room with better ventilation and hand hygiene facilities?  The specifics about these issues are in the public health guidelines for definitions of at risk and vulnerable people.  Please make sure you risk assess your staff as it is covered by health and safety law and will open your school up to potential legal issues if you are deemed to have not taken precautions.
  • Generally look after your staff and each other. This is a very stressful situation.  As we go in to winter I am sure everyone will know someone who has been affected by the virus.  Your school may be unfortunate enough to have staff or pupils affected, even potentially experience a serious case or death amongst your school community.  It is awful and no amount of reading blogs like this will prepare you for it but make sure you look after your staff.  Provide psychological support.  There are things available via occupational health and staff benefit type programs most employers have.  Make sure you use these services if you need them.

 

Marking Books and paper

  • You can give the kids worksheets. The printer isn’t full of corona virus. We are still using paper in the office at the hospital. Just gel your hands when you pass them out.
  • You don’t need to quarantine kids books before marking. It’s just OTT. But at the same time, why bother? If something needs to be marked can the kids send it by e-mail, or can they do it on paper. Or just don’t mark for a bit. Take some pressure off and give teachers time back during this difficult time, for very little affect on education – the live marking teachers do naturally is enough. Do you have any access to platforms where kids could do questionnaires or mini tests as homework that will measure their learning for that lesson?
  • Even if you disagree with this comment – It’s just for a bit.

 

I hope the things I have mentioned provide some focus for those of you worrying or having to plan all this for your imminent return to the classroom.  Just remember to be pragmatic.  You will not get things right first time, don’t be afraid to say “this isn’t working how we can do it differently”.  I have found things evolve, don’t be afraid to switch things about or improve, be open to suggestions, healthy criticism and make sure you are kind to each other.  This is a new situation for everyone with new discoveries on a daily basis.  Be open to change! Be kind. Look after people.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s