My school will end up with five-figure Covid costs

School business managers are having to balance budgets, despite spiralling costs. But they don't have magic wands


Person, falling into enormous hole

What we’ve been through over the past few months was so stressful that I’ve blocked a lot of it out of my memory. If I had to try to quantify the extra costs that our school is likely to incur this financial year, I think we’re into five figures, easily. As things stand, that will be unrecoverable.

The difficulties began with lockdown. We have quite active breakfast and after-school clubs, with staff fully employed by the school. Obviously, they weren’t needed after lockdown, so I had to investigate whether or not I could furlough them.

I rang the coronavirus hotline three times before anyone was able to give me an answer. I also sought HR and legal advice. Eventually, we were 99 per cent sure we could furlough the members of staff. But it had taken a lot of time and stress. And, all the time that I was investigating this, we were leaking money.

Hand sanitiser as fire hazard

We were working full time, and then some. We had all the normal jobs to do: invoices still needed to be paid; relationships with contractors still needed to be managed, even if they couldn’t come into school; payrolls had to be dealt with.

And then, on top of that, there was all the extra stuff. Trying to source supplies – hand sanitiser, soap and PPE – became an issue very quickly. Eventually, our local authority bought it centrally, which allows schools to top up supplies as needed.

But there were other issues. For example, if you have huge quantities of hand sanitiser on the premises, that’s actually a fire hazard, because of the percentage of alcohol it contains. So where do you store it? How much can you have safely on the premises?

Then, as more pupils began to come back, we had to think about the layout of the classrooms. We’re a primary school, so most of our classrooms are set up for group work. In key stage 1, we have horseshoe-shaped tables so that the teacher or TA can sit in the gap and work with six children sitting around. Obviously, this was not Covid-safe.

We had to hire a storage container, for all the furniture we weren’t able to use this term. Then we had to source rectangular tables, so the little children could sit side by side. That was a headache.

Initially, I was looking to see if there was anywhere to hire them from. But in the end, I was very lucky: another local school was being refurbished, so they had tables they were looking to get rid of. We bought them for a small donation to their school. If it hadn’t been for that, we’d have had to spend thousands of pounds on new furniture, which I simply don’t have the budget for.

Extra staffing costs

Since September, we’ve also taken on an extra cleaner. The other cleaners come in the morning and the evening, but she comes in the middle of the day, to clean bannisters, door handles and anything else that’s frequently touched.

And then there were many – so many – meetings about how lunchtimes would work. We sat around staring at each other: how are we going to work this out? We have more than 400 pupils, who would ideally all be eating in the same lunch hall – but not at the same time.

In the end, the only way we could manage it was by putting up plastic screens in the middle of the lunch tables, so we could have children sitting on either side. There was no way we could get them all through the hall in a reasonable timeframe otherwise. Even then, we had to extend the hours for our lunchtime staff so we could manage it. These are all additional expenses as well.

What’s hitting us now is that, like every other school, we have staff who are self-isolating because they have symptoms, or they tested positive, or their relatives tested positive, or somebody they saw in a restaurant last Saturday tested positive. We’re having to pay for cover for a lot of staff as the term goes on.

In the past, we’ve not always arranged cover for TAs when they were absent from work. But we are now, because obviously children have missed education. In some cases, their parents haven’t been able to support their learning at home as much as we would want, for a range of reasons. So there’s a lot of catching up to do, and TAs are vital for supporting with that.

With office staff, meanwhile, we’re just covering the office between us – I was answering the phone yesterday.

'I haven't got a magic wand'

My frustration is that the government won’t listen to what we’re saying about the extra funds we need, and that we’re going to need in future. We had funding to cover exceptional costs, from March to July, but that didn’t cover a lot: we were able to claim back the money for the free school meals we offered, and a little bit for utility costs when we stayed open over Easter and the half-term break.

But now, if you look at all the extra costs as the months go on, we’re talking about thousands of pounds. The government has said it’s not going to fund any of that. But all these things are a lot more expensive than what they did fund last term.

Of course, there’s the catch-up premium, but that’s money for a specific purpose – quite rightly, obviously. It’s not going to pay for staff cover, or for adaptations to the building. And that’s my worry and my frustration at the moment.

Supply costs are an absolute unknown in terms of budget forecasts. I’m just going to have to go with what looks like a very bad picture, and assume it’s going to cost lots and lots of money.

Obviously, we don’t want to go into debt – part of my job is to make sure that doesn’t happen. And we’re offsetting some costs: we’ve saved a lot on printing costs over the past six months, for example. But I haven’t got a magic wand. Unless the government puts in extra money for keeping schools Covid-safe, we – and other schools – will be going into the next financial year with a deficit.

A few years ago, when the school funding crisis hit the school very, very hard, I just sat here and burst into tears: how was this going to work? It kept me up at night. Over the years, though, I’ve built up an immunity to it. I want to do the best I can, and put together the best plan I can. But, ultimately, I’m not responsible for this situation: the government is.

The author is a school business manager at a primary school in the North of England

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