Coronavirus: how to protect vulnerable staff

Covid-19 puts groups with underlying health problems at risk – and many teachers will be part of those groups. Caroline Powell explains how schools can protect them

Caroline Powell

coronavirus vulnerable staff

EDITOR'S NOTE: This piece was written immediately after the government’s announcement last Thursday (12th March). In light of updated advice on Monday (16th March), please ensure that all vulnerable staff are encouraged to self-isolate as soon as possible.

Circulate the NHS’ guidelines on who is considered vulnerable, so that all at-risk members of staff feel confident in identifying themselves as such.

For some staff, this will mean disclosing confidential information about themselves for the first time, particularly in the case of pregnancies. It is therefore important that you establish a confidential procedure for disclosing such sensitive information, and continue to honour staff’s privacy in the event of their self-isolation. 

While media coverage seems predominantly focused on protecting our elderly demographic amid the Covid-19 pandemic, it is vital to remember that our “vulnerable” population also consists of many inconspicuous people within our teaching workforce. Schools will have members of staff who are at very real risk of severe illness or death from the virus. I am one of those staff.

Despite the government’s suggestion that we take only minor precautions for the time being so as to avoid isolation “fatigue,” many of us have already been advised to self-isolate or distance ourselves socially by medical professionals. Most of us would favour this option: a few months of boredom and inconvenience over putting ourselves in a dangerous position.

Read more: Coronavirus: Your complete planning guide for closures

Read more: Coronavirus: 8 tips from closed international schools

Read more: Coronavirus: Heads call for clarity on exam disruption

Yet this poses an obvious dilemma for schools, who are already overstretched and underfunded. The stark reality is that if schools want all of their staff alive and well for September, a drastic revision of school culture is required in the interim.

How to protect vulnerable staff

Some simple shifts in practice may help to protect vulnerable members of our community, support those in self-isolation and prevent schools from buckling under the strain of staff absences:

  • Be as generous with sick leave as your budget allows so that staff do not hesitate to self-isolate when it is medically indicated. Ensure that all staff are on board with tackling the pandemic and challenge rhetoric that undermines the severity of the virus. It only takes one person to ignore their symptoms to compromise an entire school and its community.
  • Encourage parent consultations via phone or email rather than face-to-face meetings. Raise the profile of reporting systems to ensure parents get thorough feedback on their children’s progress without bringing them into school.
  • Consider replacing upcoming open evenings with digital alternatives. Promotional videos for prospective parents could include virtual tours, interviews with students and clips of lessons from each department.
  • Recent research suggests that the virus can live on surfaces such as cardboard and plastic for up to three days. As a precaution, avoid sending resources such as textbooks home to limit opportunities for transmission.
  • If appropriate for the context of your school, encourage electronic submission of students’ work and prepare online learning platforms such as Google Classrooms or Schoology with resources for students to access. This could facilitate working from home and make the transition into school closures easier if the time comes.   
  • Deep-clean schools frequently and equip each classroom with appropriate cleansing wipes and hand sanitiser. Ensure all staff and students have access to adequate hand-washing facilities and put stringent expectations and routines for hand washing in place throughout the day.
  • Remember that many members of staff will have vulnerable loved ones and they will be anxious about taking the virus home with them. They may be required to self-isolate, too.

In extreme cases, where staff may be very vulnerable to Covid-19, these measures will not be sufficient. Until the government mandates self-isolation or social distancing for the most at-risk, consider short-term flexible working options as a reasonable adjustment. For example:

  • Look for opportunities for these members of staff to work from home. Consider adjusting their timetables to accommodate this.
  • Consider allowing staff to arrive or leave at alternative times to avoid their exposure to the public during peak hours.
  • Explore different transport options for staff commuting via public transport. Encourage staff to support each other by offering lifts to the most vulnerable.
  • Rethink the roles for those most at-risk for the rest of this academic year. If feasible, consider reducing their teaching hours and increasing their administrative responsibilities. This may enable them to work from home and alleviate the workload of other members of staff, freeing them to cover inevitable absences.

These are just some initial thoughts. To beat Covid-19, we need to spread ideas quicker than we spread the virus.

Caroline Powell is a head of English and tweets @CMPowell22

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