Managing risks and social distancing
For many school communities, the return to face-to-face operations introduces new challenges for which they need to prepare. During the Coronavirus crisis, routine group-based activities — where students come together to partake in events such as school camps, visiting cultural institutions or sports carnivals and competitions — were put-on-ice to ensure the safety of children and teachers. Now that state governments across Australia have scheduled staggered returns to traditional face-to-face schooling, the organisation of excursions and incursions needs to be re-assessed. Where is the line between acceptable and unacceptable risks in this new environment? How do you identify and categorize these new risks, then determine appropriate risk ratings and management strategies?
Given that adults have a higher risk of transmitting COVID-19, schools need to think about how they can ensure their teachers’ safety during excursions and other activities. As an example, Victoria state government guidelines advise that, if more than one teacher is present during a class or enclosed space activity, those adults need to socially distance as much as possible. Teachers will have to ensure they have adequate social distancing rules in place on school excursions too, in order to reduce the risk of transmission. This could involve separating excursion groups so that each teacher has responsibility for smaller numbers of students. Another aspect of adult-to-adult interaction that needs to be considered, in relation to both routine school operations and the management of school events or activities, pertains to parent drop-off and pick-up routines. In these scenarios, New South Wales state government guidelines advise parents to stay in their cars to ensure effective social distancing.
Additionally, schools will need to implement plans and tactics to limit cross-cohort physical interaction between different groups of students, as well as identify the total number of people that can be safely accommodated during specific activities (especially those within enclosed spaces). For example, schools may need to consider running multiple assemblies, across multiple time slots, in order to maintain separation between student year levels.
Furthermore, the flow of students around school grounds may also need to be assessed. Corridors, entrances and common transfer routes between high-traffic campus locations represent potential hazards. Schools might need to consider implementing measures such as directional hallways and staggered break-times for different year levels as a means to lessen the risk of transmission by reducing opportunities for student contact and avoiding overcrowding. Considering these risks in the context of incursions, such guest speakers or school productions, is particularly important given that large groups of students are likely to be moving in one direction at the same time. Only with the help of robust, systemized approaches to risk management will schools be able to effectively mitigate risks and meet duty-of-care obligations.
Enforcing best practice hygiene procedures
Hygiene will play an even more important role at schools, and the events they host or undertake, than ever before. Many Australian states, including South Australia, have recommended increased cleaning measures be implemented in schools, including providing “hygiene products such as hand soap, sanitizer and tissues for those sites [that] can’t source supplies through their usual means.”
Additionally, staff and students must regularly wash their hands upon arrival, before and after eating, coughing or sneezing. Hand sanitizer also needs to be made easily accessible in and outside the classroom.
To ensure this, school communities need to implement sanitising stations and communicate the importance of personal hygiene through multiple channels (display screens in corridors, posters, social media, newsletters, emails and other forms of direct communication). What might this mean for, and be applied to, school incursions and excursions?
These general control measures also need to be considered in relation to school incursions and excursions, with systemized methods of enforcing them during those activities deployed, managed and monitored.
To satisfactorily achieve that, staff need a dependable, repeatable process upon which they can rely to ensure effective risk management — both inside and outside the classroom.
Schools will also need to think about restricting the use of shared equipment, such as laptops, books, or instruments. While it may have been commonplace to share these items with classmates, new guidelines advise equipment sharing should only take place if absolutely necessary. And, if equipment sharing is required, that thorough cleaning occurs before and after use. This is especially relevant when students participate in group activities such as sports days, music rehearsals or band camps, and hands-on aspects of the curriculum like performing arts and cooking. Where there is no alternative but to share equipment, adhering to strict procedures — such as signing equipment in and out — will make tracing any outbreaks faster and easier.
Managing unwell students and staff
The most important procedure schools need to implement is, arguably, a robust process for managing unwell students or staff. The World Health Organisation recommends to plan ahead, meaning schools need to communicate a clear plan with local health authorities and their own staff. This includes making sure students and staff have updated medical records, which are easily accessible to the school, to facilitate effective information flow between different parties. Establishing access to up-to-date data, and a clear workflow for appending and communicating that information to the relevant authorities, will be essential to underpin swift decision-making and prevent outbreaks in the event of a suspected infection. Furthermore, in case of an emergency, the school needs to know who to call and what to tell medical professionals.
Without a clear plan and process for collating accurate medical information, easily accessing it on-the-go, and then enacting consistent action plans in the event of an emergency, incursions and excursions remain an unacceptable liability for schools.
But it’s not all doom, gloom and unmitigated risk for Australia’s educators. As the COVID-19 case load eases, governments are implementing broader initiatives to help schools better manage the potential spread of infection. For example, Western Australian State School Teachers’ Union president Pat Byrne stated that “teachers will be further reassured when asymptomatic COVID-19 testing begins in schools and results are known and made publicly available.” Such programs give educators vital back-up, complementing their own risk management plans and protocols (such as proactively separating students with asthma and other chronic disorders that leave them vulnerable to COVID-19).
But, while some state government programs will undoubtedly bolster schools’ ability to manage risks related to operating under the cloud of COVID-19, there still remains large unknowns regarding other government advice. While all state governments have provided health guidelines, to help reopen schools and resume face-to-face learning, the unknown nature of how those guidelines will be implemented and enforced will likely add additional uncertainty. Not only will educators need to manage and mitigate COVID-19 related risks, they’ll also need to do the same for the new risks arising from enacting Coronavirus-aware operating practices.
Where to next?
To see how your school can prepare for a return to incursions and excursions, by digitising and automating your operational and risk management processes, join Thursday’s CareMonkey – Complispace webinar HERE >