Business Continuity Risk and COVID-19

19 March 2020

One of the biggest challenges for schools falls under the general heading of business continuity. Our recent School Governance article discusses business continuity and some of the issues that should be addressed in any school business continuity plan.


Risk and its Impact on Objectives

If we look at business continuity from the perspective of risk, it is easy to see why risk is defined in ISO31000 as “the effect of uncertainty on objectives”. A global pandemic is clearly something that will have a major impact on many schools and organisations generally from achieving their objectives. The objectives are not just strategic objectives. ISO31000 is stated as applying to any organisation, group or individual - we all have objectives.

In a school context any school will have the following three objectives (whether stated or unstated or whether articulated exactly like this):

  1. The safety and wellbeing of their students, staff and community.
  2. The opportunity for students to reach their full potential educationally (and also in a more holistic sense).
  3. To ensure that the school is highly regarded in the community as a place of academic excellence where every student is valued for their unique talents and abilities.

It is easy to see how these, or very similar, objectives could be significantly disrupted by the current COVID-19 pandemic.


Risk Treatments and Control Measures

We can articulate the business continuity risk as:

Failure to implement and maintain a business continuity plan appropriate to the both the size, nature and level of complexity of the school and of the interruption to continuity

Assuming we need to provide additional risk treatments or additional control measures when we review the risk in light of the current pandemic, we will want to consider the particular risk treatments that could be put in place. Of course, many schools will be well advanced in their planning and implementation of control measures for this risk.

It is also essential to note that risk treatments or control measures may need to change or be replaced entirely as more data comes to light and as the current situation changes. Schools cannot assume that any plans that they may put into place will remain static. They need to review, re-assess and replan as the situation unfolds.

Nonetheless, the first control measure is to have a Business Continuity Plan or, if there isn’t one, to develop one as quickly as possible. Then review any existing Plan to see whether it is appropriate for the size and complexity of the school and, we should add, a Plan that is appropriate for the size, nature and complexity of the interruption to business continuity.

Anecdotally, schools have plenty of Business Continuity Plans in place to care for their students – such as evacuation plans, safer zones and so forth. However, many do not plan adequately for the event of a total closure of the school-a complete loss of business continuity.

Many Business Continuity Plans are about fires and the destruction of the campus. Few schools have Plans that contemplate a pandemic and few schools had (until recently) investigated insurance options in relation to business interruption due to pandemics.

In general, risk treatment can take many forms including:

  • changing the likelihood of the event/interruption to continuity
  • managing the consequences of the event/interruption to continuity
  • risk transfer/sharing
  • risk avoidance.

In the context of the pandemic it is easy to see how many of these risk treatments have already been undertaken or attempted at a national and local school level through isolation of patients and tracing of contacts, some school closures where there has been an infected student or teacher and restrictions on large gatherings, ensuring people stay at home if they are unwell etc – many of these risk treatments are directed to treating the ‘likelihood’ aspect.

Measures that are directed to reducing the consequences of the risk would include online learning and distance learning programs. Questions will inevitably arise as to payment of school fees, especially if closures last for months not weeks.

Strategies for risk transfer can relate to reviewing insurances to see whether there is coverage in existing policies held by the school for pandemics and changes to travel arrangements due to e.g. cancelled excursions.

What is perhaps most striking in relation to the pandemic is the complexity of the issues involved and the ongoing impact of consequences that go beyond providing work for students to do at home. There’s the knock on effects for parents that have to stay at home to look after children (and this affects school staff too), and the effect that the broader impacts on the economy may have on enrolments – and we could go on.



The challenges at a school level in managing the consequences of a pandemic are not all known. It is new territory. Many of the consequences that are known to date have generally been discussed in the recent School Governance article.

The specific challenges will depend on the operating profile of the school e.g. primary or secondary (or both), its style of tuition and curriculum, its location (city or country), whether it has boarders and whether it has overseas students.

Jonathan Oliver

Jonathan is a Principal Consultant working with CompliSpace education clients. He has more than 10 years experience in the school sector as a teacher, compliance and legal adviser and more recently as a Business Manager. Jonathan has been a solicitor for nearly 30 years and worked in both private practice and community legal centres.