To help academies and maintained schools identify the most useful and up-to-date advice, we have produced a note to help them protect their communities and prepare for the challenges of continuing to provide educational services during an outbreak.
What Is the Coronavirus?
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, first identified in December 2019, is a new virus, for which there are curently no effective drugs and/or a vaccine. Since it was first identified, a growing number of cases have been identified globally, including in the UK.
While most cases appear to be mild, with typical symptoms including a cold, sore throat, fever and a cough, the virus can progress to severe pneumonia. It has resulted in a number of fatalities across the world, although many victims have been elderly, those with weakened immune systems and long-term health conditions.
Government Guidance on the Coronavirus
As there are a growing number of cases in the UK, the government has published a coronavirus action plan. This sets out what the UK has done, and plans to do further, to tackle the outbreak. Its strategy is to contain, delay, research and mitigate spread of the virus.
The government has stated as its understanding of the disease increases and its impact becomes clearer, it will issue further detailed advice about what to expect if/when further measures become necessary. The government is continuing to update the guidance for the public, Coronavirus (COVID-19): latest information and advice, on a daily basis, and other government advice on a regular basis, eg the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Travel advice: coronavirus (COVID-19).
The FCO's Travel advice: coronavirus (COVID-19) provides advice for British people travelling overseas and the implications for travellers returning from certain specified countries/areas when they arrive in the UK. Those returning from Category 1 areas will be required to self-isolate and call NHS 111, even if they are asymptomatic. Travellers returning from Category 2 countries will also be required to self-isolate and call NHS 111 if they develop symptoms on return. Academies and maintained schools should flag this to pupils and staff, but be mindful the Category 1 and 2 country/areas are likely to change on a regular basis.
How to Maintain a Healthy School Community
While the number of the cases in the UK remains low, many schools have asked what measures they should put in place to protect their school community.
The government has produced COVID-19: guidance for educational settings, which provides guidance for pupils, staff and parents/carers about the virus, how to help prevent the spread, and what to do if someone is confirmed or suspected to have COVID-19. It has also set up a coronavirus telephone helpline for anyone with education related questions.
Current government advice is, if anyone in the school has been in contact with a suspected case, there is no need to close the school or send pupils/staff home while the test results are awaited. If test results are positive, in most cases, closure will be unnecessary but this will be a decision for the school to take based on risk assessment and particular local factors. These may include the age range of pupils and size of school, advice received from the local health protection authority, and medical advisors and insurers.
How to Manage the Risk of Coronavirus Infection
You will already have procedures in place to assess the risk of spread of infectious diseases and plans in place to manage possible outbreaks.
Risk assessments should be in place to cover how the school identifies risk of infection to the general school population and to individual staff and pupils (eg those with impaired immunity or long-term health conditions), and how these risks may be managed and mitigated. It is important that the risk assessments have regard to up-to-date government advice and guidance and are regularly reviewed and updated.
You should also consider who may have been in contact with suspected/confirmed cases of COVID-19 and how this should be managed.
Overseas School Trips
Any overseas trip needs careful planning and risk assessment, which should be reviewed on a regular basis, both before and during the trip.
Given that there are a growing number of coronavirus cases globally, you should revisit your plans and ensure adequate risk assessments are in place for individual pupils and staff/supervising adults attending the trips. You should also check insurance policies and consider the financial impact to the school if it is necessary to cancel a trip. We recommend that you do this now, well in advance of any forthcoming schools trips.
You should continually review the FCO website to check whether it has advised against travelling to a particular destination. If you are considering cancelling a trip in the absence of FCO advice not to travel, they should consider the contractual relationship between the parents and the school and/or the school and the tour operator (if applicable) so they have a clear understanding of the school's rights and obligations in the event they do cancel.
If you do go ahead with their plans, you should put a contingency plan in place which makes provision for disruption to travel, eg an increase in travel/accommodation costs and sufficient time after the trip for staff/pupils to self-isolate (and consider how this might affect public examination arrangements after the Easter holidays).
As part of your risk assessments for each individual trip, you will also need to consider as part of your contingency plan, what arrangements would need to be implemented in the event that a member of staff or pupil were to become unwell with COVID-19 symptoms while on the trip. This might mean making contingency for isolation; and making additional arrangements for travel after the period of isolation has expired. As with any school trip, the staff : pupil ratios in the event of staff or pupil illness will also need to be considered.
Preparing for Disruption to Provision of Education and Care
You should have an emergency plan in place to help staff respond effectively to an emergency at school or on an educational visit. This should be generic enough to cover a range of potential incidents that can occur, including public health incidents (eg spread of infectious diseases which may lead to disruption to the school's provision) and contain procedures for the continuity of provision of education and care, where possible.
You should have already reviewed your curriculum policies and schemes of work to ensure arrangements can be put in place at short notice to cope with staff shortages, or to educate pupils remotely if they are required to self-isolate, or if the school is advised to close temporarily.
You should also review and consider how pupils will be able to 'catch up' on various elements of the curriculum once the school re-opens.
Supervision and Staffing Ratios
In the event of staff shortages, the government has indicated that it may relax the EYFS staff : child ratio requirements. All schools should assure themselves that they have sufficient supervision arrangements in place to ensure the adequate safety and supervision of the pupils particularly those in the younger age range. Reception and other infant classes (children aged 5, 6 or 7) should normally be groups of 30 or fewer, but having more than 30 in one class due to temporary exceptional circumstances is not a reason to close the school or the class.
Ofqual has published updated guidance for schools to help them prepare for possible disruption to exams and other assessments. Many pupils will be taking GCSE and A level exams after the Easter break so you should consider putting a contingency plan in place now. JCQ's current (2019) contingency plan can be found here.
Scaling Back Provision/ Temporary Closure
If a school decides to scale back its provision or close for a temporary period, it is likely to incur costs in the short-term, although we do not, at this point in time, anticipate any reduction in general annual grant.
Whether additional costs are recoverable will depend on the circumstances and what financial risk protection arrangements are place.
You should check your insurance policies to clarify:
- the extent of the cover, eg would the school be covered if there's a coronavirus outbreak - is it a specified/or fit into a category of specified diseases
- when (and if) it is payable, eg when a school reduces its operations or closes (either at the request of a 'competent authority' such as a local health authority, or voluntarily based on thorough risk assessment undertaken by the school)
- if it covers unforeseen costs, eg supply staff, alternative arrangements when trips and visits are cancelled
- is the school a member of the Risk Protection Arrangement (RPA)? If so, what does this cover?
- if the local authority makes the decision to scale back operations/temporarily close a maintained school, will they cover any additional costs incurred (eg to set up remote learning)?
You should also check that you have Business Interruption Insurance and whether it covers:
- closure as a result of a coronavirus outbreak (does it need to be a specified disease/condition?)
- loss of early years entitlement funding for suspension of EYFS provision (schools should check with their local authority)
- costs of hiring alternative premises, eg for exams/assessments
- loss of income from hiring out school premises to third party organisations
Consider Your Commercial Contracts
You should also review the risks to your wider business operations and understand what rights you have if the school or suppliers are prevented from performing contractual obligations, for example (but not limited to) contracts with cleaners and caterers.