5 challenges schools face when a student tests positive

When a family informs school that a pupil has tested positive for Covid-19, it's only the beginning, says Angus Harrison
3rd November 2020, 12:00pm
Angus Harrison


5 challenges schools face when a student tests positive

Coronavirus: The Challenges For School Leaders When A Pupil Tests Positive For Covid-19

Whenever a student tests positive for Covid-19, there are a raft of procedures that school leaders need to carry out. Here, Angus Harrison, deputy headteacher at Valentines High School in East London, shares five challenges a positive test might bring and what school leaders can do to tackle these issues.

Coronavirus: When a student tests positive

1. Identifying close contacts

Although there is clear government advice on what is defined as close contact, asking a Year 8 student who they spent 15 minutes with on a random breaktime last week is less straightforward. So, what do you do here?

Seating plans will help you to identify who is directly next to the student in each of their lessons. Asking staff to use the same rough seating plan across all subjects helps to cut down on the time working through every lesson for the full 48 hours before symptoms.

Working with the student to think of who they usually play with at lunchtime and breaktimes means that you can include their social group, too.

Finally, the practical subject teachers can verify whether the student worked in a group. This is where we stop at our school, unless the student tells us of anyone else specific - and when in doubt, we err on the side of caution.

Read more about the coronavirus and schools:

2. Informing carers

As a senior leader calling a parent or carer to inform them that their child must isolate, you will often find that you're speaking to someone for the very first time. A quick check-in with the head of year will give you a steer on any previous issues and prospective communication barriers.

Focus on getting an early feel for how the parent is responding. Parents and carers are probably feeling a range of emotions: anger at the school for insisting students stay at home, confusion about the virus itself, distress for other vulnerable household members.

Dignity in dealing with all of the above is crucial: have government guidance to hand to reference directly, and emphasise the importance of everyone in the community playing their part.

Finally, check for understanding. I once thought the parent fully understood, but the following day the child turned up to school, prompting a small furore in tutor time. It transpired the parent needed a translator on the call, but was afraid to ask. This was something I could have offered, taking a little more time in the moment, but saving even more time later.

3. Supporting staff

It is absolutely normal and understandable that some of your staff will be concerned when you get a positive test. Staff may want to know who has tested positive, but the guidance is not to give out the student's name except where this is "essential to protect others". 

Asking staff to notify SLT if they've had close contact with a Year X student on days Y and Z will help to identify any close contacts as well as allaying fears, without naming the student.

But make sure that you speak to the teachers of the student who has tested positive, before notifying the whole staff team. This gives clarity and reassurance.

In our school, I follow up with an offer to speak to any members of staff who are concerned, and a handful usually take me up on this. We've never needed our staff to work together more than we do now and the personal investment in them is well worth the time, even if it puts my day back by a few hours.

4. Debating continuous coughs

This sounds small but, as a school, we really struggled to identify a definition of a "continuous" cough. The NHS website calls it "coughing a lot"; Professor Jacky Smith, of the British Thoracic Society, described it by saying "there's a lot of coughing going on" in an article in The Guardian; and the Scottish NHS defines it as "coughing more than usual".

We eventually found a definition that makes sense to us via an unusual source: Dr Hilary on Good Morning Britain described a continuous cough as "five or six coughing fits in an hour" for "at least half a day". It's specific and easy to explain.

5. What will you have to deal with tomorrow?

Expect some of the students who should be isolating to turn up. Make people free first thing to reassure any students who come in anxious, and audit those who should be isolating. 

Expect calls from parents and carers of students who shared lessons with the student who tested positive but were not close contacts and so do not need to isolate. Be ready to calmly go over your thorough process and the guidelines they're based on. Showing empathy with parents will be essential during these difficult calls.

You will also need to be ready to offer some TLC - to your staff and to yourself. Remember to send an email of thanks to those colleagues who helped - from translators to people who grabbed something from the photocopier. 

As for yourself, I always make sure I buy myself my favourite breaktime treat: a Mars bar. We go into teaching knowing it will be tough. But in these times, it is more than tough; I know what the consequences are if I make a mistake. There's nothing that is going to change that, but having a thorough process to follow and a good Mars bar helps.

If any school leaders want further advice, I am more than happy to offer what knowledge I can: Ahr@valentines-sch.org.uk

Angus Harrison is deputy head teaching and learning at Valentines High School in Ilford

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