6 min readHow schools should react to the coronavirus outbreakposted about 4 years ago

With more than 100,000 cases across the globe, the coronavirus outbreak is a natural source of concern for schools and colleges. Schools in high-risk areas like China have been closed for weeks, and Italy — the worst affected country in Europe — recently announced a national 10-day school shutdown. According to the United Nations, almost 300 million students are currently affected globally. 

All scary-sounding statistics, yet the situation at home remains in containment mode. At the time of writing, 319 people have been diagnosed with coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, in the UK. But despite government advice, headteachers have been unsure of the best steps to take. As a result, a number of schools have reportedly closed over fears of spreading the virus. 

If you’re concerned about your school, here’s all the official advice you need to know about and some practical steps to help you prepare for a potential widespread outbreak.

What is the risk to children?

Few coronavirus cases have been seen in children, says the government. “Evidence from China at least would imply children have much less of this disease, either because they get it less often or the version they get is a lot milder,” explained chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty to The Sun.

In fact, most people with coronavirus will not experience a severe infection. (However, the elderly and people in ill health can be at risk of more serious symptoms.) It’s still not 100% clear how the virus spreads, but it’s believed that droplets from coughs or sneezes can transmit it to others.

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Should schools be closing?

Public Health England has advised that schools don’t need to close right now. If a student or staff member has returned from a Category 1 area — that’s Wuhei city and Hubei Province in China, Iran, special care zones in South Korea, and quarantined areas in Italy — in the past 14 days, they should remain at home in isolation for two weeks. Anyone who has returned from any part of Italy since the 9th of March is now also being advised to do the same.

Those who have recently visited Category 2 countries — a longer list that includes the rest of China, Japan, and Hong Kong — only need to self-isolate if they develop symptoms. These tend to show up as coughs, fevers, and breathing difficulties.

Within the next two weeks, however, advice may intensify. The government is soon expected to tell anyone with a fever or minor signs of a respiratory tract infection to self-isolate for seven days. It’s part of a bid to delay the peak of the virus until summer when the NHS is more well-equipped to cope.

If pupils or staff are in self-isolation, the rest of the school should carry on as normal, per the government’s action plan. There is also no need for schools to send students home if a pupil or colleague is being tested for coronavirus. But if they receive a positive diagnosis, your local Public Health England Protection Team will be in touch to advise next steps. According to the government, full closures are often unnecessary. 

But if the UK’s coronavirus situation worsens, stricter measures may be put in place to reduce the risk of spreading. This may include social distancing strategies like school closures. However, any tactics “will need to be balanced against their impact on society,” says the action plan — especially the burden on parents.

A Department for Education helpline now exists to answer burning questions from educational staff and parents. Call 0800 046 8687 any time between 8am and 6pm on weekdays.

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How to deal with the current coronavirus risk

To help contain the coronavirus outbreak, it’s important to practice basic hygiene and to pass this knowledge on to the school community. Hold an assembly detailing simple ways to prevent spreading germs, and put up posters around the school to emphasise the message.

Here are a few easy things for both staff and students to remember:

  1. Wash your hands as often as you can. This includes before you leave the house, when you arrive at and leave school, before and after eating, and after going to the toilet.
  2. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or the amount of time it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice.
  3. Use hand sanitiser containing at least 60% alcohol when you don’t have access to soap and water.
  4. Always cough and sneeze into a tissue, and immediately throw the tissue away.
  5. Try not to touch your face with unwashed hands.
  6. Disinfect surfaces and objects that people tend to touch throughout the school day. 

You may also want to hold off booking school trips to at-risk countries. For more prevention information, head straight to the government's educational settings guidance

If you suspect a pupil or colleague has coronavirus, don’t shut the school and don’t send the person to a doctor or hospital. Instead, call NHS 111. While waiting for a response, sit the person in an isolated room or at least two metres away from others. Ask them to avoid touching people and objects, and ensure they have a tissue for any coughs and sneezes. (They can sneeze or cough into their elbow if you don’t have tissues to hand.)

When you’ve been given official advice and the person has left the premises, the room should be thoroughly cleaned. Again, you don’t need to take further steps unless told to by health professionals.

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What the future could hold

Although coronavirus may not spread to all corners of the UK, it’s sensible to start considering how you’d continue teaching if your school were to shut.

With exam time on the horizon, a particular worry may be the fate of your students’ grades. Exam regulator Ofqual told Schools Week it’s working closely with exam boards and the Department for Education, and continues to “consider whether there are particular risks to the smooth running of exams.”

“We will update our existing guidance to reflect any specific arrangements schools and colleges should put in place if required,” the regulator added, advising schools to continue preparing students for exams and to ensure up-to-date contingency plans. Help with contingency planning can be found here.

But it’s not just exams that need attention. One school in Devon was forced to adapt when a case of the virus spelled its closure. Laptops were loaned to students, and online lessons — four blocks of 75 minutes each day — were implemented, with teachers available to mark work and answer questions.

Ask yourself if your school or college can adopt a similar strategy. If so, do students have the resources to work virtually? Or can they be given hard copies of lesson plans? Answering these questions now will save a lot of stress if a national outbreak were to occur. Don’t forget to keep parents informed of any measures that may be put in place and, most importantly, don’t panic.

As Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told the Independent: “The priority must be to minimise the disruption to the learning of students.” Only time will tell if disruption is on the horizon for education across the UK.

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Lauren Sharkey

Lauren Sharkey