Schools are now finalising their plans for wider reopening, and while the government has insisted that it is possible to do so safely, there is a lot to consider before welcoming back pupils and staff.
Naturally, safety will be a top priority for school leaders. Not only do you have a legal duty of care, but getting this right should relieve the added pressures of reassuring parents and reducing staff absences.
While England’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, has maintained that children “much less commonly get a severe illness and end up having to be hospitalised [from COVID-19]”, pupils are not the only group at risk and school leaders must also give thought to their staff and others who may be affected by an outbreak in their setting.
In fact, despite Gavin Williamson’s suggestion that there is little evidence of transmission in schools, one report has warned that COVID-19 is more easily spread between children than originally thought, and another has indicated that older children spread the virus just as much as adults. Ask any teacher, and they will likely attest to the fact that young children are extremely efficient at catching and passing on respiratory infections.
With seemingly contradictory evidence, high anxiety and so much at stake, school leaders will be naturally apprehensive about September reopening. Our Health & Safety specialists offer three pieces of last-minute advice and reassurance to help you put your best foot forward as you step into the unknown.
1. Understand your health and safety legal duties
During the Autumn term, there is the potential for schools to be visited by various regulatory bodies. While the Independent Schools Expectorate (ISI) has stipulated that routine inspections will be deferred until January 2021, the HSE is currently visiting non-education settings – specifically enquiring about COVID-19 risks and the control measures in place – and there is every chance that schools may become a target for inspections later in the year.
These bodies will be looking to ensure that schools are complying with the government guidance for education settings as well as the wider requirements of health and safety legislation, and all of this will hinge on risk assessment. Remember, COVID-19 is another hazard that organisations need to manage, and like any other workplace hazard, control measures need to be put in place to reduce the risk of someone being infected.
As such, ahead of reopening:
The guidance recognises that it will not be possible to ensure a totally risk-free environment, so keep this in mind when applying the guidelines and adopt a “reasonably practicable” approach. Indeed, the guidance itself states that it should be used as “a framework for school leaders to put in place proportionate protective measures”, and this will rely on judgements at a school level about balancing and minimising risk since no two schools are the same.
Ultimately, school leaders should take some reassurance from the statement within the guidance that “if schools follow the guidance set out here and maximise control measures, they can be confident they are managing risk effectively.” Keeping a paper trail will also be important to evidence how you have managed, and will continue to manage, COVID-19.
Make sure your risk assessment considers local lockdown planning in line with any local guidance and that you have an outbreak plan in place outlining the action that will be taken if multiple persons are displaying symptoms or you are aware that somebody within your setting has tested positive.
2. Deal with anxious staff appropriately
Understandably, all stakeholders will be concerned about this new term. While the government is now giving employers more discretion to decide whether it is safe to bring staff back, homeworking should still be explored where possible.
Whether this is viable will depend on a person’s job role; clearly, if they are a teacher, this more than likely won’t be an option, so this term will be about providing reassurance through consultation and communication. This will not only help facilitate a return to work but is also a requirement under the Health and Safety (Consultation with Employees) Regulations 1996.
Involvement in risk assessment is key, as this will enable staff to own the control measures. Having them understand the Hierarchy of Controls, which ranks control measures in order of their effectiveness, is also useful.
Face coverings may also help staff to feel more at ease. Though not currently mandatory in schools, if an employee feels more protected wearing one, then you should support them in this.
In addition, while shielding is currently paused, if you have a member of staff who considers themselves vulnerable or whom you believe to be vulnerable, undertake an individual risk assessment with them to address their specific circumstances and the associated risks. This should hopefully provide the reassurance they need to return.
3. Know how to handle health and safety concerns raised by unions
As mentioned, there is a legal requirement for employers to consult with employee representatives on health and safety matters.
The Health and Safety at Work etc Act (HSWA) 1974 places a duty on employers “to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees.” However, the Act also places a duty on employees to take reasonable care for their own safety and that of others, so while the onus primarily falls on employers, this is very much a collaborative effort.
In respect to the legal strength of teachers’ union guidance, therefore, effectively the aim of the guidance is to point back to the legal duties under the HSWA and other relevant regulations. As such, unions – and Governors – should not be working against school leadership teams but with them, as all parties have one primary aim: the safety of your pupils, staff and others.
5 other operational difficulties
Operating under these new conditions, with increased numbers, will likely invite numerous other everyday difficulties. Think about:
- How will parents’ evenings work? Use technology if feasible; if not, ideally only one parent should attend and should not bring their child with them. Social distancing and good hand hygiene should be practised as normal, appointments should take place in a large area in the school, and one-way systems should be implemented. Consider splitting parents’ evenings over multiple nights and using a strict appointment system to limit numbers and reduce interaction.
- Fire doors. These should not be propped open unless designed to be held open with a maglock that is connected to the fire alarm system.
- Toilets. Consider what reasonable measures you can introduce for the autumn term; a one-in-one-out system won’t be possible after full reoccupation of your school.
- Changing weather. During colder months, the opening of windows and doors, outside queuing, usage of outdoor workspaces and outdoor sanitisation points won’t be completely feasible and you may need to find alternatives to these measures.
- Managing contractors. As things return to normal, you will likely see an increase in the number of contractors and visitors required to be in the school. As such, careful interaction and documented procedures for these groups, along with information for testing and tracing, will become increasingly important.
While schools will understandably feel enormous pressure to protect people from harm and prevent wider community outbreaks, remember that balance (“reasonable practicability”) is key.
The HSE has long advocated for “a sensible and proportionate approach to health and safety management that promotes risk awareness rather than risk avoidance.” Though COVID-19 is a new and largely unknown hazard, the same basic principles apply, and experienced school leaders will no doubt be adept at managing and controlling risk in a fluid way.
Reopen your school safely with our specialist support
In need of specialist advice, guidance and reassurance on reopening your school safely, compliantly and with your team in tact?
Our Employment Law and Health & Safety specialists are currently supporting UK education providers through their Autumn term challenges, from managing staff absence to implementing robust safety arrangements. We can even assist with risk assessment, either remotely or on site.