So, in June the Government set out its high-level guidance for the return of children to classrooms in something like normal numbers (you’ll find a summary of that guidance in our other recent blog), and there may be more information still to come.
However, having worked with schools and colleges for decades, we have some idea of the hard work their management teams will be undertaking right now to identify how they can translate that guidance into detailed action plans suitable for their own settings.
To this end, we’ve captured some of our own thoughts and advice below, to help them on that journey. We recommend reading this in conjunction with our ‘COVID-secure guide for businesses’ as, while educational establishments have their own unique characteristics and challenges, many of the COVID-secure principles are the same.
Firstly, a word about the situation
Schools and colleges are a hard nut to crack, in terms of COVID-security. Why? Because of the people they cater for, namely, children and young people who are quite rightly designed to be highly social animals. While they’ve had five months to get used to the idea of keeping their distance from one another, put them back in a familiar classroom environment alongside their mates, and concepts like social distancing and extra hygiene precautions are likely – to at least some extent – to go straight out of the window.
So, that – plus the known fact that children are expert super-spreaders of infection for a whole host of reasons – is the dilemma those responsible for these places face.
So, what can they do to give confidence to colleagues, parents and children, while ensuring their own peace of mind?
Some ideas from our experience – for education providers
- A child’s-eye view: Re-look at your whole school or college environment from the perspective of the children or young people you serve. You’re fighting an invisible enemy so ask yourself ‘how do they flow around our buildings?’, ‘what things do they habitually do?’, ‘where do they tend to congregate?’, ‘what interactions do they have with teachers and support staff?’ and – based on all of this information – ‘where are our greatest risks of transmitting COVID-19?’. Then, you can then start to form a plan. Use bright, visual posters and directional signage to engage attention – younger students might respond better to pictorial information.
- De-clutter your environment: Look at everything inside your premises from the perspective of this pesky new form of virus which has become very adept at living, sometimes for quite a while, on certain types of surfaces. Uncluttered, wipeable surfaces made from materials like metal and plastic are your friend. Rugs, soft toys, cloth soft furnishings and carpet where things can linger for longer, are not.
- Re-consider your teaching tools: Tangible, shared equipment should be kept to a minimum, and anything you do use should be wipeable and cleaned down between uses. Digital items like screens, laptops and tablets are easier to clean using alcohol wipes than similar toys with grooves and grains. We’re living in an increasingly digital age – what learning activities can you transfer to digital format, to minimise how much physical ‘stuff’ students have to touch? Similarly, consider ways of facilitating your usual large-group engagements, which are so vital to school culture, in an online meeting format. Assemblies, for example, are maybe best avoided at the present time, or at least unless you have a vast open space to use for the purpose.
- Change processes: Consider all of the non-educational activities your school engages in, day-to-day. For example, things like cash payments for uniform orders and after-school clubs should go and be replaced by online payments.
- Additional safety measures: While Public Health England has said that temperature testing of pupils isn’t necessary, it has explained that poorly children should not be allowed into school for the protection of others. In our view, this is all about building confidence among everyone who forms part of your educational community. Therefore, if you believe it would help you do that, we would recommend forehead temperature testing of pupils as they line up to come into school each day. This simple measure – which is being deployed everywhere from airports to some healthcare settings – could help you identify infections early and keep them away from your school environment. Similarly, as part of the daily school admission process, teachers could take registers with parents and guardians present asking if there has been any sign of the key coronavirus symptoms within each pupil or any member of their household: temperature, loss of smell or taste and continuous coughing. By taking control in this way, and continually re-educating everyone about what to look out for, you’re helping to ensure everyone’s safety.
- Educate, and make it fun: Education is, of course, what these settings are there for and good at, therefore building inspirational learnings around minimising the coronavirus risk is something all schools should be implementing as part of their daily routines. This isn’t about frightening students in any way, or about instilling paranoia, but these messages are potentially life-saving and need reiterating constantly. Similarly, a zero-tolerance approach to good discipline is absolutely vital. Undesirable things that all children do at some point, from spitting to play-fighting, simply cannot be allowed in this current climate.
- Good hygiene, above all else: Keeping your environment as clean as it can possibly be is at the centre of everything, and will make the biggest difference. Whereas cleaning activities used to be daily or even weekly for different parts of your school, they now need to take place several times a day, and everyone needs to be involved. Where cost might have been the greatest factor in choosing detergents and disinfectants, sourcing the right things which comply with appropriate European standards is now your bigger priority. Things you might want to consider include EN14476-certified antiviral disinfectants and wipes affording the minimum possible contact germ-killing time. While chlorine-based products can offer a cost-effective alternative, you need to consider the surfaces you will use them on, as they can tarnish some over time. You may also need to source more hand sanitiser and soap with the right ingredients to ensure effective germ-killing. And you may also need to install additional handwashing and sanitisation stations around your building, such as at entrance/exit points, outside toilets, communal areas and outside classrooms, to enable students and staff to adhere to your rigorous new hygiene requirements. Switch off electric hand dryers, too, as they are known to spread germs through the air, and replace them with disposable paper towels with an appropriate bin to discard them into alongside. And, wherever possible, swap out cleaning equipment like cloths and mops for disposable alternatives, to minimise the risk of cross-contamination. There are also other preventative products you might want to consider, such as one-way systems, and antiviral mats which, when positioned outside your school entrance doors for children and staff to wipe their feet on, can prevent coronavirus germs being transferred into school via their footwear. We are also able to source extra-small protective gloves, for any settings where further safeguards are needed for certain activities.
- Social distancing, where you can: Social distancing of at least a metre – ideally two – between pupils is still advisable where possible. However, where it isn’t, consider reviewing your seating arrangements, for example facing children away from each other as they work. We can source child-friendly signage as well as standard social distancing barriers, including a range of floor stickers.
- Implement new routines: Certain school routines pose increased risk, because they involve increased numbers of children coming together; for example, lunchtimes. You might want to consider new routines around these things, such as handwashing before and after eating, removing shared cutlery trays so that each pupil is handed their own cutlery bundle with their meal, and wiping down tables and chairs between groups. Implementing this consistently may require increased staffing, particularly in younger settings, so that there are enough adults to supervise and guide what pupils are doing. Toilets are the other obvious pressure point, as lavatories are another source of contamination from bodily fluids. Again, the answer is to limit the number of pupils using the toilets at any one time, clean them more regularly and supervise handwashing and sanitisation after children have used the facilities. Consider supplying personal protective equipment like gloves, aprons and face masks or visors for any members of staff engaging in such close contact with students.
Things parents can do to support their school and minimise any risk of children bringing infection home
One thing is certain, we’re all in this together and the more we can collaborate towards the same, positive outcome – protecting those we love against coronavirus and get back to more normality – the better. When it comes to COVID-security in schools, and the knock-on risks to our homes, parents have an absolutely vital role to play – from reinforcing messages young people hear at school or college, to making simple changes that reduce the risk of transition at home. Here are some suggestions of small adaptations you could consider, that could potentially make a big difference.
- Making the right choices: Reconsider your child’s clothing and equipment. Wherever possible, choose wipeable surfaces for things like lunch boxes, school bags and even coats, and clean everything regularly with antiviral wipes and washing-up or laundry detergents – because COVID-19 is an enveloped virus, it is susceptible to normal washing of this nature.
- When sharing isn’t caring: While it’s good to share, educate your child on the need to keep things like their equipment, clothes, stationery and packed lunch to themselves, for now.
- Re-enforce school’s messages: Re-enforce the education about disease transmission your children have already had over recent months, and will be receiving at school: things like regular handwashing, for longer; not playing in too close contact with their friends; not touching their faces (or playing with things like bobbles and hair bands which can also carry the virus), and covering their faces with tissues when they cough or sneeze.
- New routines: Just how much caution you want to exercise surrounding your child’s return to school will depend on your individual family circumstances and whether you have vulnerable people to look out for – and, indeed, whether your child has a condition which puts them at greater risk. However, you might be wise to reconsider your daily school pick-up routines and implement new, preventative actions. For example, encourage your child to take off their school clothes at the door, maybe take their daily shower then and put on their comfortable home clothes before they turn their thoughts to relaxation. Coronavirus can be carried on fabrics and this kind of precaution is something many medical professionals have been following since the start of the outbreak, so it’s tried and tested. Washing uniforms after each use, if you can possibly manage it, is also an advisable thing to do.
- School pick-up: You might also want to re-think who picks your child up from school each day. If it’s possible to ensure this is the same person, consistently, then you are minimising the risk of multiple people potentially taking their germs into the playground, and vice-versa.
We hope you found these tips helpful. If you would like some bespoke advice on achieving COVID-security within your education setting, don’t hesitate to contact us via 01482 327580 or firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll be delighted to help you forge an effective plan, or iron out any crinkles on the one you’re already working on.