In response to the spread of COVID-19 (the ‘Coronavirus’), the UK Government has announced that legislation will be introduced to the House of Commons to give ministers powers to take preventative measures. The governments of the four nations of the United Kingdom have also implemented a UK-wide ‘Action Plan’ with the intention of creating a serious and consistent response to COVID-19. The UK-wide plan also indicates a willingness to enact further legislation giving such power as is required to mitigate the effects of the virus. Whilst we await a draft of the legislation to be introduced by the UK Government, key provisions will likely include limiting the spread of COVID-19 at educational institutions such as schools, universities and colleges. Given the international makeup of many of our students, pupils and learners, the implications for education providers in Scotland is potentially far-reaching.
As well as legislative changes, we are seeing an increasing body of advice about how to respond to COVID-19. In particular, NHS Scotland has issued Guidance specific to education providers on how to manage their response to the virus (the ‘Guidance‘). These legislative and non-legislative developments are indicative of the serious risk that is posed to education providers by COVID-19.
Given the potential policy implications, legislative changes and Guidance, this blog outlines steps that universities, colleges, schools and other education providers can take to limit the legal threat caused by COVID-19.
Covid-19 and the threat to education providers
COVID-19 is a new strain of a ‘coronavirus’, which was initially identified in China earlier this year but has spread internationally and is being increasingly reported across Europe and the UK.
COVID-19 is principally spread by contact between people of a distance of two metres or less. For educational institutions (many with international students) operating busy lecture halls, classrooms and residential accommodation this raises some important practical considerations.
How can education providers respond to COVID-19?
The application of multiple policies, contracts and agreements will be affected by the spread of COVID-19, including those setting out an educational body’s relationship with pupils, students, parents, carers and legal guardians, student bodies, insurance firms, businesses and contractors.
These, as well as admissions policies and student contracts, should be reviewed without delay to fully consider how issues caused by COVID-19 may be addressed. It is also important to consider how policies concerning child protection and safeguarding will interact with a worsening crisis.
In limiting the risk posed by COVID-19, communication with students (current and prospective) and staff will be key. Educational bodies should adopt policies that outline the process that pupils, students and staff who feel unwell or believe they may have been exposed to COVID-19 should follow, and communicate these, including by means that people can access from home if they are self-isolating.
The Guidance advises that there is currently no preventative vaccine for COVID-19. Therefore, adopting a policy-based approach that aims to minimise the spread of COVID-19 is appropriate.
While the Guidance is based on limiting the spread of COVID-19 and does not advocate that educational institutions close, it is worth remembering that the extent of the virus is not yet known. It would be prudent for educational brodies to take action to ensure they are prepared for an increasingly serious outbreak and the impact on their operations.
The Guidance states that there is no need for panic. While cases of those who are unwell or may have COVID-19 should be treated seriously, it is currently unnecessary to close institutions to prevent the spread of the virus, or to send students and staff home.
However, in the event that the situation worsens, more serious measures may be required. Educational bodies should consider drafting contingency plans for closing buildings, and proactively engaging with security, campus management, cleaning staff, and waste management providers to ensure an effective crisis response.