By now, all Scottish schools should be fully open for the Autumn term. This is an important milestone as restrictions ease but brings with it new risks to be assessed and new measures to be put in place to protect children, young people and staff. We have prepared a list of ten health, safety and wellbeing considerations independent schools should consider as students return.
1. Risk Assessments
- Schools and educational establishments will already have risk assessments in place. However, it is vital to ensure that these have been updated to take account of the new risks COVID-19 presents and that they consider the risks of any changes or new measures put in place in response to the pandemic.
- A paper trail of the risk assessment should be kept, including previous versions and any related documents to justify control measures implemented.
- Scottish Government Guidance on re-opening schools states that the risk assessment should consider all aspects of the return to school including getting to and from school and any work placements. The HSE has produced a guide on working safely during the COVID-19 pandemic which includes guidance on what should be included in a COVID-19 risk assessment.
- It is also important to remember that employers have a duty to consult their workforce on health & safety arrangements. This can be a consultation with health & safety representatives appointed by trade unions, employee appointed representatives, or employees directly regarding the risk assessment.
2. Re-opening Buildings
- If school buildings have been closed for a significant period of time due to the lockdown, a health and safety check of the building should be completed prior to allowing general access.
- Amongst other matters, this should include consideration of the risks of legionella in the water system.
3. Physical distancing
- There is differing advice in relation to children, young people and adult staff working in schools when it comes to physical distancing.
- The COVID-19 Advisory Sub-Group on Education and Children’s Issues has published advice on physical distancing in schools. It states that, on the balance of the evidence, physical distancing is not required for primary age children. It recommends the same approach for older children, though the evidence is less clear.
- However, where there are opportunities to minimise risk, schools should put measures in place and encourage distancing, particularly between senior students.
- Teachers and other staff within schools are recommended to keep their distance as much as possible, with a distance of 2m from other adults being the ideal. It is acknowledged that the nature of working with young children may make this difficult in some circumstances.
- It is recommended that schools assign children and young people into consistent groups where possible to reduce transmission risks. The UK Government Guidance notes that at secondary school level, these groups may need to encompass an entire year group.
- Schools should also consider staggering break times, drop off and pick up to minimise interactions and mixing of groups where possible. Staggering the school run will also reduce risks for parents who may otherwise be congregating at the gates.
- Enhanced cleaning regimes will be a vital control measure for minimising the risks of transmission.
- Regularly used touch points such as door handles and bannisters should be cleaned frequently.
- Schools should try and limit the personal items students can bring to school, though it is recognised this may be difficult to apply with younger children.
- The sharing of books and other resources should be limited where not necessary, although books and resources can still be taken home. It is recommended that library books are quarantined for 72 hours following their return.
- School uniforms and staff clothing should be cleaned as normal.
- Schools should put in place sufficient hand washing and hand sanitising stations, particularly at key points such as entrances and exits.
- Natural ventilation can be increased in buildings by leaving doors and windows open where possible. However, fire safety doors should never be held open, and the fire risk assessment should be reviewed to consider the risk of any internal doors to be left open.
- The importance of COVID-19 hygiene measures should be communicated to all students and staff regularly.
6. Extra-Curricular Activities
- Extra-curricular activities can have a tremendous benefit on young people’s development. Provided that the activities adhere to current guidance, extra-curriculars can go ahead.
- External clubs and organisations can be brought in where the school is satisfied that it is safe to do so. External coaches and other staff should be informed of any new measures put in place in response to the pandemic.
- The pandemic has had a significant impact on many people's mental wellbeing. This may be particularly felt by children and young people.
- As students transition from being at home to returning to the school, they may experience anxiety and need time and support to deal with the adjustment.
- Open communication with staff and students can ease worry and anxiety as well as allow any concerns to be addressed.
- As an employer, schools should also consider the protection of mental wellbeing of their employees at work.
8. International Students
- Schools should be aware of quarantine requirements for any international students following their entry into Scotland. Following school holidays, international students should be advised to plan to enter Scotland with enough time to quarantine prior to the term commencing.
9. Boarding Schools
- The Scottish Government has published supplementary guidance for residential boarding schools.
- Schools should have risk assessments for each setting considering student numbers, staffing levels, meals and shared facilities.
- As with schools in general, boarding schools should consider how they can minimise contact including grouping students into “family” units.
- Should students show symptoms, procedures for Test and Protect and outbreak management should be followed. Whether a student isolates in their boarding house or in their family home will depend on what is best for the individual.
10. Contingency Planning
- Schools should have contingency plans in place should there be a local outbreak and the school is required to close. This should include provision for remote learning.
- It is also important to give special consideration to students and staff who are clinically vulnerable and shielding, and students with additional support needs.
- Schools should also have a plan for managing an outbreak within their own community, following local health protection team advice.