At 10:54am on Saturday, I received an email from a parent informing me that her child had tested positive for Covid-19.
I am writing this at 7pm on Sunday evening as an account of what happened next. I hope school leaders will find it useful.
I’m sure we’ll get better at reacting to similar scenarios, but I’ve learned a lot over the past 24 hours and will be giving out further guidance to staff as a result. More on that shortly.
Coronavirus: What to do if a pupil tests positive
Having first informed my senior team, I then logged a call with the health protection team (HPT) at Public Health England.
Although we are an academy, my local authority had produced and circulated two helpful flowcharts, so I knew who to contact and had the number to hand. I am sure there is something similar in the Department for Education guidance; but then again, maybe there isn’t. How do you even begin to know where to look?
Coronavirus: What happens if a teacher tests positive for Covid-19?
School safety: What happens if a student tests positive for Covid-19?
Restrictions: How to prepare for local lockdowns
Having logged the call, I was told that someone would call back, but that they were experiencing huge numbers of calls.
I received a call back a couple of hours later and found the advice very helpful. The person taking the call was working from home with her five-year-old running around her (the system really is stretched), but she was excellent. Following this call, I did the following:
- Obtained the timetable of the infected child and identified those staff who had taught him/her.
- Wrote to those teachers with an accompanying definition of what constitutes close contact and asked them two things: did they (the teacher) consider themselves to have been in close contact with the child during the specified period, and could they provide the names of the other students, from their seating plan, who had been in close contact with the child?
- Wrote back to the parent of the child (who was excellent) asking a number of questions: could the child remember who they had been in close contact with, not just in school but on the bus, in the yard, within the bubble?
- Identified and wrote to other staff who may have spoken to or been in contact with the child. In future cases, this could include members of the pastoral team, SEN team, catering staff, and so on.
It slowly became clear that this is not an exact science. The definition of close contact is highlighted below and was sent to staff. I added the highlights because they were crucial.
Perhaps because my advice at the start of term hadn’t been clear enough (but most likely it is because this is new to all of us), I received lots of questions and uncertainty from teachers. "I was talking to this child for this many minutes; they were here/I was there; I was wearing a mask, I can’t remember if they were or not; I think I was more than 2 metres away; I was helping them with this so I was within 2 metres, but not for long enough and we weren’t face-to-face". You get the picture.
Absolutely nobody is to blame. This is new to us all, but I found myself making a string of “clinical” decisions that I didn’t feel completely confident in making. "I think you are fine; when you said you were there, are you sure they were there?" And so on.
Identifying the students was easier. The children in a lesson on either side were clearly within one metre for more than a minute and those in front were within 2 metres for more than 15 minutes. But what about those sitting behind?
I found myself thinking about the layout in each classroom, how far behind the next row of desks was, and deciding there could be some room for manoeuvre if the child was facing the front and those behind were roughly 1.5-2 metres away.
But in all honesty, I have imperfect information. Even the teachers I questioned will (understandably) not remember the layout of their room to the exact centimetre.
Having identified a group of students and staff, I sent letters. The HPT had sent me four template letters (a "close contact" letter for students telling parents they should self-isolate for 14 days; an equivalent one for staff; and two “not close contact” letters for staff and students). We sent these letters out on Sunday afternoon, as it had taken this long to carry out the investigation. If we had received notification during a school day, the pressure would have been on us to work even more quickly to isolate staff or students. The template letters we received felt impersonal so I added a section at the end to provide more context. This is the letter I sent to those students needing to self-isolate:
One thing is absolutely clear; our staff have been amazing this weekend. We have a rule (normally) about not sending emails at the weekend, with the implication being that I don’t expect people to check them, either.
Yes, this weekend I have needed my data manager to send me timetables and send out letters; my site manager has been in school this afternoon cleaning the (possibly) infected classrooms (again); numerous teachers and support staff have responded to emails, texts and phone calls from me. None of this work (of course) is recognised by the DfE. My guess is that this will become the norm most weekends and evenings. It is simply not sustainable.
And then, of course, we get social media comments. It only takes a few to blow it out of proportion; those who received the “no close contact; no action necessary” letter wanting to know which year group the student is in, wanting to make their own decision about whether to send their child in with very little information. Clearly, the identity of the student (even their year group) is confidential. The following is important:
- The child is fine. They hadn’t experienced the main symptoms (they had an upset stomach and felt a bit nauseous). The positive test was a complete shock.
- Those students who need to self-isolate will be feeling frustrated and upset. It is our job to set them work, communicate with them and check on their welfare.
- This will happen again and again; it is inevitable. Our students wear face masks in lessons. The adviser said this was excellent and will reduce spread, but it won’t stop all cases and it doesn’t mitigate against the need to self-isolate if you break the 1 metre or 2 metre rules.
- The close contact info (above) is probably the most important info school leaders can share with their staff. I have said that other than a medical emergency, each member of staff must not put themselves in a position where they could be identified as being too close to a named person (student or colleague).
And what of exams? It is clear to me that there needs to be a plan now. This is going to happen up and down the country most weeks. It won’t be a level playing field and to simply hope everything is going to be OK is not good enough. The DfE has shown itself completely incapable of making clear-headed and timely decisions. It needs to start now.
And finally, a message for our parents: the chances of your child being ill, even if they are infected, are tiny. They may carry the virus home, but that is why we have our rules in place on face coverings. Parents can play their part by asking their children to think about their behaviour on the bus, on the way to and from school, and at home.
I hate the term "new normal", but we will get through this. For now, it is likely that the events of this weekend will be repeated a few times more. With 1,300 students in a confined space, how could it be otherwise?
Andy Byers is headteacher of Framwellgate School Durham. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, here.