Recently, we have published several articles to assist schools to deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Schools and Pandemics - How well prepared are your staff? we posed the following questions, “As a school, what will be your priority? Have you developed your business continuity plan, and have you prepared for the possible exit of and then the return of students and staff?”
So, what has your school done to accommodate the possibility of infection of staff or students on or off campus, long or short-term campus closures and student/staff return and a genuine business continuity plan?
What are Schools Doing to Prepare for or Deal with Closures?
The data that is being received by our government and the updates of information being released to schools and the public is changing on an almost daily basis.
On one hand we are advised by the Prime Minister that schools will remain open for now. However, many state governments such as the New South Wales Government are urging parents to keep their children home from school despite the schools remaining open. We also have medical practitioners asking why the schools are not closing now, and many are pulling their children out of school initially in support of their personal stance and now in light of relaxed state government positions.
What mixed messages do these send to the parents of the students in our schools?
Nonetheless, while the children are attending school or are engaged in the educational program of the school, there is a clear duty to educate them and to keep them safe. This duty of care extends to all staff, visitors, volunteers and contractors who attend campus.
Some strategies that have already been employed by schools have included:
- Knox Grammar School has closed its boarding house and has sent all boarders - including 80 from overseas - home.
- Christ Church Grammar spent three months preparing and trialling a remote teaching programme. They advised that this was to ensure that students could still access lessons and study during a prolonged shut down.
- All Saints Anglican School has closed its campus and is delivering classes online ahead of the upcoming holidays.
- The Diocese of Maitland advised that the schools were cancelling or postponing large gatherings, increasing the regularity and enhancing cleaning of high touchpoints, reinforcing good hygiene, increasing ventilation to classrooms or using the outdoor environment for teaching.
- St Francis Xavier College is ready to move to 100 per cent online with 500 staff and 3300 students over three campuses.
- Nearly every department of education is posting information for schools regarding planning for a possible closure.
- Around the globe the United Kingdom, Ireland and Jamaica, among dozens of other countries, have published strategies for schools in the event of closures.
The federal government has released the Australian Health Sector Emergency Response Plan for Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19). It says: ‘State and territory governments are responsible for the operational aspects of public health responses […] They will […] implement social distancing measures as per national recommendations and local risk assessment […] and support outbreak investigation and management in residential aged care facilities, schools, prisons and other institutions.
What are the Long-Term Possible Implications?
In a recent School Governance article, we noted that even with one child or employee infected in a school, schools could be impacted in a number of different ways including:
- absences of staff
- absences of students
- disruption to travel arrangements which may affect attendance of staff and students
- loss of supplies
- staff with sick children will have to stay home to care for them.
If there was a total unplanned school closure for a fire, earthquake, or even asbestos contamination that made the campus unsafe to enter, all affected students would be eligible to enrol in and would be required to be taken in by local government schools. All parents are entitled to enrol their children in a local government school.
However, although many non-government schools are closing their physical campuses, they are conducting online learning from those campuses with most students learning from home and the minority being supervised at the school.
Students remain enrolled and do not have to seek alternative schools. They can continue to work from home with teachers posting lessons and communicating online to their classes. However, schools need to have this type of wide scale online teaching/learning planned and readily available. Schools need to ensure that teaching staff either work in isolation from within the school or work from home, with good quality internet access.
Students will need access to computers and the internet. This may be problematic for students in outlying rural areas with poor internet availability or for students who do not have either an accessible computer or internet access in their home. In addition, online learning is not feasible for any practical subjects unless the teachers are able to provide alternative theory lessons or lessons that mimic practical activities. There are many other questions to be answered regarding duty of care for the students, supervision for assessments and so forth.
The closure of some boarding facilities began shortly after the Prime Minister’s Press Release on 18 March, which included: The National Cabinet noted that boarding schools are “at high risk of transmission” and encouraged boarding schools and parents to “consider the risks versus the benefits of a student remaining in boarding school”.
There is no doubt that more may choose to do this after the April holidays and follow the lead of the first few schools.
Issues regarding closing boarding facilities include what to do with overseas students on E500 Visas with requirements for their education and welfare, the return of regional or rural students to their homes, the availability of online learning, and financial implications relating to payment of staff and the loss of fees.
Fees for overseas students can be anywhere between $18-$37k+ per annum. Add boarding fees if they are boarders. In some schools, this could amount to $65-$70k+ per annum per student. If a school has many overseas students, what losses can they expect?
Schools need to consider implementing several protocols with staff if there is to be a closure and online work. These include:
- a working from home policy
- a working from home safety checklist
- daily check-in form/checklist for all staff
- working from home guidelines
Schools should establish online meetings with groups of staff and ensure that each has a leader who can coordinate these meetings. There could an online face to face meetings daily, to discuss the events of the day, to share issues or celebrate wins and to ensure that staff are still fit and well. In addition, staff could be required to log in daily and complete a questionnaire regarding their health and their ongoing ability to work effectively from home.
However, schools may also need to consider total closures with no possibility of ongoing work-especially for non-teaching staff. Will the school be able to exclude staff (on full pay)?
In addition, many families will be affected by the COVID-19 pandemic through direct loss or indirect loss of family members. Will returning staff be trained in crisis management or trauma or grief management?
The Western Australian government has announced that public servants will have access to 20 days of COVID-19 paid leave if their paid personal leave entitlements are exhausted. This will not affect an employee's annual leave or long service leave. Can non-government schools afford to do this? Other states and territories may choose to introduce equivalent entitlements.
Will staff expect to be paid if they are required to self-isolate for two to three months with no online learning?
If parents choose to withdraw their children from the school, following the re-opening of the campus, or request fee remission, this could mean losses in fees and per capita grants and would result in cash flow losses.
Of greatest concern for schools would be the possibility of student and/or staff deaths due to this outbreak. The social upheaval would be immense. Is the school prepared for mourning and bereavement support?
There is also a certain level of fear that is currently being generated and spread in the community. Many children have seen first-hand, or may have experienced first-hand, panic buying and hoarding. Children can be affected by the behaviour and emotions of parents, other children and the staff of their school.
School Governance wrote earlier this year that schools also need to be wary of any form of xenophobic or racist behaviour that may be directed towards Chinese students on their return to school.
What about the child who actually catches COVID-19? Will the school be able to ensure that he or she is not bullied when they finally return to school?
This video on KidsTV by Michael Carr-Greg is a brilliant resource for parents. Schools may wish to view this and share it with their community
Schools are developing and implementing plans to continue to care for and educate their students. However, many may not have planned adequately for a total closure of the school for several months and a complete loss of business continuity. They also may not have planned adequately for when the crisis has been averted and they go back to business as usual.
With changing data and differing arguments such as herd immunity, flattening the curve (squashing the sombrero), it is not difficult to understand the confusion that is being created. However, schools need to focus on what they do best- educating and caring for children.
The Conversation has recently produced an excellent check list for schools that are still developing their forward plans. It can be found here.