Many day schools face a major challenge to ensure safe reopening for all pupils in September, while maintaining social distancing rules and taking the necessary heath measures. For boarding schools, the challenge is acute.
There are around 70,000 pupils in independent boarding schools and approximately 40% are overseas pupils whose parents live abroad. There a further 5,000 pupils in state boarding schools.
How to conduct lessons safely is just one of their concerns. Pupils spend a lot of time together with staff acting in loco parentis.
The current situation is fluid and fast-moving. This is in respect of both Government guidance, regional outbreaks in the UK, and changing infection rates in the home country of overseas boarders.
Boarding schools have been in the difficult situation of having to plan for numerous scenarios. For instance, a National Education Union (NEU) rep at a boarding school in the south west said that her school had planned for seven scenarios!
Although, there has been a sustained move to relax key safety measures, such as the social distancing requirements, the future remains uncertain. Schools will also need to plan appropriate alternative measures in response should there be a second wave of the virus and the possibility of local lockdown.
The two-metre distance rule was particularly problematic in boarding schools. It was not just a case of leaving every other seat, or bed, empty. For example, a boarding school whose dining hall usually caters for 200, concluded that it would only be able to safely accommodate 60, considering safe distancing not only at the individual table, but in respect of tables in front and behind. With the relaxing of the rule to 1 metre plus, calculations are likely to be reconsidered.
Beyond the social distancing in the normal school provision, boarding schools have to consider bedrooms; bathrooms; meals and evening social activities. Additional cleaning will be required and particular attention needs to be paid the safety of those staff coming into close contact with the pupils whether they be house parents, school nurses, cleaners and in particular staff dealing with laundry.
The challenge is different for each school. It will be easier for those with more space and facilities.
What additional measures are boarding schools taking?
Many took the practical decision not to open their boarding houses in the summer term but planned for the new academic year. This was not just in line with the NEU’s thinking on the matter but, importantly, the views of many parents.
Arrangements were made for the early return of overseas boarders to comply with the requirement of 14-day quarantine for overseas visitors.
Other medical steps being taken include: consideration to requiring all pupils and staff to take an antibody test before returning at the start of the new academic year; conducting temperature checks on a daily basis for pupils and staff; and implementing a school-based track and trace system.
Consideration is also being given now to what happens when a vaccination is available and whether permission can only be given by parents or, whether legal guardians can also authorise.
Organisational preventive measures include school group ‘bubbles’ where small groups of pupils live and study and mix within a bubble, with designated staff. In one way, having all the children on site could be seen as posing less risk, if they are all boarders and not coming and going and mixing with others. Being in small groups and not mixing might mean that they are designated as a household, which would help with sharing facilities, eating together and distancing.
Separate, smaller, groups reduce general contact and potential exposure to infection. They also make the management of any outbreak easier. It is simpler to identify those in contact with the infected person. It reduces the number of pupils and staff who might need to isolate.
Additional complexity of “bubbles” arises in schools who have a mixture of day, flexi and full-time boarders. In particular, how the school deals with flexi boarders
Smaller cohorts of pupils require additional space. Schools are looking at utilising areas not previously used for teaching, including sports and assembly halls and outside areas.
Additional risk assessments are being undertaken for the wide variety of extracurricular activities. For example, can contact sports such as rugby be run safely? Instead, schools are looking at running summer sports.
What should NEU members working in boarding schools do?
The NEU has published its joint union checklist and guidance on September reopening to assist members and reps. The checklist covers a wide range of safety considerations in general educational settings, as well as addressing key concerns raised by NEU members working in boarding schools.
We strongly recommend that NEU members discuss the checklist with senior managers. It is a helpful document prompting considering and planning over a wide range of areas. We know that many independent schools find the NEU checklists helpful.
NEU advice to members will be regularly updated as matters develop.
Members should refer to the extensive NEU guidance on coronavirus.
Remember that the discussion on what needs to be done to minimise risk and to open safely should have the full involvement of staff delivering the provision. As the leading union in the sector, NEU workplace reps should be central to this. Reps should consult members and raise issues of concern.
The Boarding School Association [BSA]
The BSA has much useful information and guidance on their website. Amongst others, this includes:
- BSA Charter
- BSA Checklist and Nurse Advisors guidance on medical considerations [attached to the checklist]
The Scottish Government guidance
Scottish Schools returned earlier than England on 11 August. The Scottish Government issued guidance on a return to school, including a section on boarding.
Staff expertise and knowledge of the workplace
As the professionals delivering boarding provision, you are best paced to judge whether the policy and practice in your school or college is effective.
In some areas, such as cleaning in non-health care settings, the Government has detailed specific measures to be taken.
In other areas, it will be a matter of your judgement as to whether you are satisfied that adequate precautions are being taken to meet the requirements in your particular workplace.
Some areas of the guidance will need to be fleshed out. For example, the BSA Charter sets out
- Required appropriate social distancing in all areas of school
- Required regular hand washing by pupils and staff
The NEU checklist provide details about how social distancing and hand washing should happen.
To supplement the NEU and BSA checklists, as appropriate, you might wish to ask the following questions. The list is not exhaustive and you should ask other questions you think relevant.
- What procedures are in place for the testing of staff and pupils?
- What measures will be taken to manage a Covid-19 outbreak? How will staff nursing children with Covid-19 be protected?
- Who will be subject to temperature checks and how will the system operate?
- Will PPE be provided to all staff in circumstances where social distancing is not possible and will training in its use and disposal be provided?
- Will staff and students who wish to wear face coverings be permitted to do so?
- How will safe occupancy of premises be achieved in classrooms, bedrooms, dining areas and bathrooms?
- How will pupils' clothes be laundered on a daily basis and will any relaxation in uniform requirements be necessary?
- Will cleaning standards set out in public health guidance be followed?
- In what circumstances will pupils be able to leave the site and what measures will be in place to ensure this happens in a safe manner?
Workload and pay
Safety measures such as smaller cohorts of pupils and division between day, flexi and full boarders mean that additional staff cover is likely be needed.
Of course, staff should show flexibility and commitment to make new arrangements work. However, it is not reasonable to expect staff to undertake significant additional work, or take on extra responsibilities, without remuneration.
Staff who were required back at work two weeks early for the 14-day quarantine of overseas students should be paid.
It goes without saying that increased cleaning by the dedicated cleaning staff should be paid. Where this service is contracted-out, schools should ensure that staff are properly remunerated for any additional work.
Further information and advice
There is extensive information and guidance on the NEU website.
For specific advice contact the NEU Advice Line 0345 811 8111 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Foreign & Commonwealth Office for the latest on travel to and from other countries.