COVID-19 Return to School: Schools Under the Microscope

28 May 2020

The official government advice in relation to children returning to schools after the COVID lockdown is lengthy and requires careful reading and digesting and will require a lot of planning to implement. The return to ‘regular school’ will require a whole range of new approaches to tasks and activities that teachers and students had been used to doing in particular ways as part of school life and ‘normal’ school routines prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly every school activity that used to be part of a ‘normal’ school day will be affected.

There is potential for both legal liability and reputational damage if an organisation fails to effectively implement the government advice or wilfully ignore it. If there is transmission of infection at a school, it would be expected that the school will be asked to show what they have done to reduce the risk of infection transmission in line with the government advice. There is also likely to be reputational damage if it is shown that a school is not following government advice and current community-expected protocols.


Risk Assessment and Risk Mitigation

The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) statement on risk management for re-opening boarding schools and school-based residential colleges (AHPPC Boarding Schools Statement) states that schools are required to undertake a site specific, systematic risk assessment, risk analysis and risk mitigation process to ensure that the return to using boarding facilities is as low risk as possible.

The AHPPC Boarding Schools Statement states that:

Mitigations should ensure that the risk is managed as far as reasonably practicable using the hierarchy of controls before reopening. The risk assessment should be used to inform the approach to reopening (e.g. full or partial).

This language is the language of health and safety legislation and, appropriately, is designed so that schools with boarding facilities have identified and controlled the risks to health and safety associated with their operations in the current COVID-19 environment. The “hierarchy of controls” is the use of the highest level of protection and most reliable controls to the lowest level and least reliable controls. While the quoted section in the AHPPA Boarding Schools Statement is directed to schools with boarding facilities, a similar approach should be taken by all schools in order to manage the COVID-19 infection transmission risk effectively.


Which Areas of Operations Should the Risk Assessment Cover?

The AHPPC Boarding Schools Statement says that the risk assessment should include, but not be limited to, consideration of:

  • accommodation and sleeping arrangements
  • hygiene facilities
  • catering processes
  • meal times and processes
  • class times
  • classroom procedure interface with dormitory procedures
  • study requirements
  • entry and exit to the site
  • visitors
  • off campus visits
  • policy and possible gaps
  • vulnerable students
  • vulnerable teachers or other staff
  • cleaning regimens
  • education and training for COVID-19
  • indoor/outdoor recreation areas
  • laundry areas and other ancillary areas.

Of those areas listed above nearly all would apply to every school not just those with boarding facilities.


General Advice from the AHPPC

The AHPPC has also put together a useful online general guidance advice document for schools (AHPPC General Statement). The AHPPC General Statement is stated to have been prepared “for school leaders engaging with children, parents, teachers and support staff to reduce even further the relatively low risk of coronavirus (COVID-19) transmission in schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.” It is also stated to be a “broad” document and notes that decisions about how to apply its guidance should take into account the local epidemiology (broadly how COVID-19 is tracking, spreading etc in the relevant place) and context.

The AHPPC General Statement recommends generally that schools:

  • adapt activities that involve mixing of classes and years
  • stagger times for start and finish recess lunch, use of common areas and other times where crowding and queueing can occur
  • cancel sport, excursions, assemblies and large gatherings
  • increase ventilation and in-class distancing to the extent this is possible
  • stop public access to all school facilities
  • increase cleaning of all common areas and particularly toilets and play equipment
  • make use of hand washing and hand sanitising as mandatory after a wide range of activities including before entering and leaving classrooms and before and after using play equipment.


Other Issues to Consider

There are a number of other issues to consider in relation to return to school (in no particular order) (some of which are suggested in the AHPPC General Statement):

  • In addition to the matters related to school operations discussed above, it is important to ensure that the COVID-19 infection transmission risk assessment processes also identify particular groups of students, staff or parents where the consequences of transmission are potentially very severe and may be life threatening. Specific risk mitigation plans should be in place for them. This will require consultation with the people in these vulnerable groups.
  • For some students with complex medical needs, an informed risk assessment by parents in consultation with medical practitioners should consider whether on-site education is suitable for their child and, if it is currently considered unsafe, at what point it might be safe. Students with health care plans will need to have the plans updated to include information on the COVID-19 infection transmission risk and possible impacts.
  • It is very important to identify the best way to send staff and students home if they feel unwell and are experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19. Where should they be located prior to be picked up or taken home? How will they be supervised?
  • There should be specific plans for managing a suspected or confirmed case or cases in students, staff and parents or members of the student or staff households.
  • Schools should consider how the ‘stay at home / do not come’ message for staff and students who have any of the symptoms whether mild or severe should be communicated and enforced.
  • Schools should consider how they enforce new procedures so that parents stay away and maintain physical distancing requirements when they visit the school and at pick up and drop off times.


Many Changes = Many Complaints?

Schools will need to deal with increased complaints and feedback and may see an increase in staff grievances related to the COVID-19 infection transmission risk mitigation requirements. Not all students and staff will be impacted equally or perhaps even fairly by the changes that will be required.

The COVID-19 requirements are likely to generate many issues and some complaints that parents will want to discuss with the school. Changes as significant as these in the way that schools operate are likely to have teething problems and unforeseen outcomes. Many of these issues raised by parents may well be valid and need addressing. Further, as school staff will be experiencing a changed working environment, they may have issues and possible grievances that they will want to bring to the attention of school leaders.

As with all change management, schools should definitely consider borrowing from workplace health and safety laws by consulting with staff, and involve the rest of the school community in some way, in developing, implementing, and reviewing the effectiveness of measures to control the risks of COVID-19 transmission.

For more information on a school’s responsibilities under workplace health and safety laws, see our article Transmission of COVID-19 in Schools: Workplace Health and Safety Law Requirements

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.