How Will Your School Continue to Operate in a Pandemic (or a Bad Case of the Flu)?

Published
27 February 2020

A pandemic is defined not by the severity of the illness but by the geographical spread. Even though the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus) appears to be slowing in China there has been a surge in cases in Iran, South Korea and Italy. Australia’s cases keep rising although resulting deaths are thankfully still very low. However, there are considerable concerns that the coronavirus will continue to spread with more people catching it who have had only a remote connection with anyone who has been to China (or Italy, Japan, South Korea or Iran…).

A school will be impacted in a number of different ways: absences of staff, absences of students, disruption to travel arrangements which may affect the ability of staff, students and supplies (think empty canteens) to reach the school. And while attempting to predict the numbers who may become sick or in quarantine, we must not forget the impact extending beyond each individual: most sick people will need someone to stay home and care for them; younger children in quarantine will need someone to care for them. The resultant absences from work will affect businesses and travel.

A couple of years ago Australia was subject to a bad flu epidemic when the annual flu vaccine did not accurately predict the particular strand of the virus it was supposed to prevent. The impact was so severe that some schools collapsed classes together and others closed for a few days because so many staff were sick that there were not enough staff to safely operate the school. Note that at that time absences were not exacerbated by associated quarantine periods.

 

What is a Business Continuity Plan?

If a school manager was asked a couple of years ago what went into a business continuity plan, the usual response would relate to “disaster recovery” - as a result of computer systems crashing – an event which would be fixed by their IT team. Over the last 12 months, we have been exposed to far greater threats with drought and bushfires threatening whole communities and affecting the most basic commodities such as water and electricity supplies. The coronavirus is yet another threat to be factored in.

A Business Continuity Management (BCM) Plan is designed to ensure that critical functions can be maintained or restored in a timely fashion in the event of a material business disruption. The BCM Plan should minimise the financial, legal, reputational and other consequences arising from the disruption. A robust BCM Plan must address foreseeable risks which could disrupt the school’s operations, and:

  • ensure the continuity of services to our students
  • ensure the continued provision of a safe working environment for our students, staff and visitors
  • ensure clear communication to our staff, students, and parents/carers.

Business continuity management is part of an effective enterprise risk management program and is an essential element of good governance. If a school is remiss in not having a workable business continuity plan and there is a significant disruption to the provision of schooling to their students, this is very likely to result in very angry parents and possible legal action. Just imagine students preparing for their final year exams in such an environment.

While a BCM plan should consider all the various disruption events, here we will only be discussing those relating to the coronavirus.

 

What Should a School Do?

The first step is to identify the elements and likely impact of the potential disruption. While the news and formal medical advice about the coronavirus appears to change every day, there will be a number of relatively foreseeable elements.

At the extreme end, in the event of a school having to close for an extended period of time due to staff illnesses and/or quarantine requirements, the same provisions can be applied as when a school is closed due to fire, a chemical spill or even asbestos contamination that makes buildings unsafe to enter. Under those circumstances ALL students can enrol in and must be taken in by the local government schools. Anyone is entitled to enrol their children in a local government school if they are ‘in area’.

If a school is likely to only be closed for a finite period, say for a few weeks, students can continue to work from home for a short period of time because teachers could post lessons online and could communicate online to their classes. However, schools will need to have this type of wide scale on-line teaching/learning planned. Staff would need access to top quality internet access from their homes or from an agreed (sterile) shared space. Some questions for schools to consider:

  • Is wide scale on-line teaching/learning available now, and how will this be communicated?
  • What happens to students from rural or remote areas where WIFI may be unreliable or non-existent?
  • How will secondary school classes be organised where different teachers interact with students throughout the day?
  • What about practical classes such as sport or food technology, drama and creative arts, or access to school equipment for design and technology for metalwork or woodworking?

It should be noted that it is likely that school regulatory authorities will provide advice or direction to schools in these areas.

The same planning regarding facilities should be applied if only some students and staff cannot attend school, whether they are in quarantine, or in the case of staff, looking after sick family members. This will be particularly crucial for students in their final year of school with exams looming.

If the school is closed:

  • Does that mean that some staff may not be required, for example, some school support staff?
  • How will this be addressed: should they be placed on paid leave, or forced to take annual or long service leave? What if they don’t have the necessary leave available?
  • Would the school consider extending paid personal/carer leave entitlements?
  • If a staff member is forced to stay away from school because the school is closed, is this a breach of the relevant staff member’s contract of employment?

The decision about whether a school is closed or not may not be left to a school, but may be a government directive.

What about the impact on school fees if the school is closed without lessons or some boarders are sent home?

And at the most extreme end, if staff or students die as a result of the virus, is the school prepared in terms of mourning and bereavement support? Does the school have a current Critical Incident Management Plan and policies? And more brutally, the impact on a small school of losing students is also financial –it affects school fees and government grants. In relation to government grants, when student enrolment numbers did not meet the set budget in time for the February Census, schools may then spend months playing ‘catch up’ with mid-year enrolments who may, hopefully, be enrolled in time to meet the August Census.

 

Summary

While we could be lucky and the coronavirus could run out of steam like previous bad flu outbreaks, schools must think seriously and promptly about what the possible ramifications of the impact of the coronavirus are and how the school will address them while minimising the impact on the school community.

Note: While waiting for the virus to strike, as of Monday this week, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer is quoted in The Age newspaper as recommending that facemasks not be worn as a matter of course but people should be focusing on washing their hands often. See here for World Health Organisation advice on when and how to wear a mask.

 

Authors

Svetlana Pozydajew

SvetlanaSvetlana is a Senior Consultant at CompliSpace. She has over 20 years of experience in strategic and operational human resource management, occupational health and safety, and design and implementation of policies and change management programs. She has held national people management responsibility positions in the public and private sectors. Svetlana holds a LLB, Masters in Management (MBA), Master of Arts in Journalism, and a Certificate in Governance for not-for-profits.

Craig D’cruz

CraigWith 37 years of educational experience, Craig D’cruz is the National Education Lead at CompliSpace. Craig provides direction on education matters including new products, program/module content and training. Previously Craig held the roles of Industrial Officer at the Association of Independent Schools of WA, he was the Principal of a K-12 non-government school, Deputy Principal of a systemic non-government school and he has had teaching and leadership experience in both the independent and Catholic school sectors. Craig currently sits on the board of a large non-government school and is a regular presenter on behalf of CompliSpace and other educational bodies on issues relating to school governance, school culture and leadership.

CompliSpace Media

CompliSpace is an Australian company that helps over 600 non-government schools across Australia with their governance, risk, compliance and policy management. What makes us different is that we monitor over 200 sources of legal and regulatory change to ensure our clients have the updated policies and tools they need to meet new requirements. We share that knowledge with the broader Education community via School Governance.