As we look ahead to the return to school in September, within the context of a changing operational environment, asset managers will no doubt wish to review the government guidance that has been published around this. This is particularly pertinent given Gavin Williamson the Health Secretary's recent statement that there must be a "concrete determination" to get students back to class.
On 2 July the Government published updated guidance (the "Guidance") on how to minimise coronavirus risks in the full-reopening of schools. It is important for asset managers to have an understanding of this, so as to best prepare for the autumn term. Whilst we appreciate that the Guidance will raise a number of important questions for teaching staff, particularly around curriculum management, contingency planning, and extracurricular activities, we explore some of the key takeaways specific to asset managers in the commentary below.
The Guidance stipulates that it is a legal requirement for schools to revisit and update their risk assessment to consider the measures required to enable a full return in the autumn. Having assessed their risk, schools are obliged to carry out a system of controls to prevent cases of COVID-19:
- minimise contact with individuals who are unwell by ensuring that those who have coronavirus symptoms, or who have someone in their household who does, do not attend school;
- clean hands thoroughly more often than usual;
- ensure good respiratory hygiene by promoting the 'catch it, bin it, kill it' approach (a further example of the Government's affinity for 'triplets' in their messages);
- introduce enhanced cleaning, including cleaning frequently touched surfaces often, using detergents and bleach;
- minimise contact between individuals and maintain social distancing wherever possible; and
- where necessary, wear appropriate PPE.
The first four of these actions are required to be in place in all schools at all times, number five must be considered in the light of each school's particular circumstances, and number six applies in specific circumstances.
Point four is likely something that has been considered by many already, though it poses a unique challenge. It is potentially going to be difficult to arrange frequent cleaning of frequently-visited areas during school hours. As such, asset managers may need to think creatively when it comes to scheduling additional cleaning sessions to fit around the school day.
The fifth point, minimising contact, perhaps leaves the greatest scope for individual interpretation. Separating desks by two metres may not be practical or possible in smaller schools, for example. In circumstances where this is the case, the Government advises that '1m plus' should be the approach. This means a separation of one metre, plus mitigations, such as installing screens, or having students facing away from each other (this seems less practical in a classroom setting). In both spacious and small schools, it is important for asset managers to consider the best way to use the space available to comply with the Guidance.
The Guidance suggests that step 6 would be necessary only in a very small number of cases where a person becomes ill with coronavirus symptoms and where a 2-metre distance cannot be maintained, or where a student already has routine intimate care needs that involve the use of PPE.
Beyond prevention, the Guidance also sets out a number of actions that schools must take when an infection has been identified:
- engage with the NHS Test and Trace process;
- manage confirmed cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) amongst the school community; and
- contain any outbreak by following local health protection team advice.
Each of these measures must be followed in every case where they are relevant.
The obligation on schools in relation to the first point is to ensure that staff members and parents/carers understand that they must (1) book a test if symptoms are displayed, (2) provide details of persons they have been in close contact with if they do test positive for coronavirus, and (3) self-isolate if they have been in close contact with someone who develops COVID-19 symptoms, or tests positive for COVID-19. The best way to satisfy this could be by keeping up communication with staff, students and parents/carers, possibly through weekly bulletins.
The key with the second point is speed: when schools become aware of a positive case for COVID-19, they should contact the local health protection scheme, who will carry out a rapid risk assessment to confirm who has been in contact with the relevant person. To aid this, schools should keep a record of students who are grouped together for timetabling purposes. Schools must not share the names or details of people with COVID-19 unless this is essential to protect others.
The final measure states that if schools have two or more confirmed cases within 14 days, or an overall rise in sickness absence where COVID-19 is suspected, they may have an outbreak, and should continue to work with their local health protection team. In these circumstances, it is possible that local health protection teams may recommend that a larger group of students self-isolate at home. This could include the whole site or year group. Asset managers should consider the various ways that they may have to assist with the response post-outbreak, such as deep cleaning of the site.
To support the fight against Coronavirus, the key things that schools should bear in mind is to use their best judgement, to keep abreast of the ever-developing government guidance, and to keep up communication with staff, students and local health protection teams. As much as this word may be overused at present, these are unprecedented times, and it is important that all members of the school community work together to ensure that a safe return to school can be achieved.
If you would like to know more or would like to discuss anything further, please get in touch.