Coronavirus: Crisis management and school closure – issues to consider

Written by: Matt Bromley | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Schools are closing across the UK in the face of the coronavirus emergency. As they prepare to shut their doors, Matt Bromley looks at some of the issues headteachers will need to think about, including practical considerations, supporting staff, the continuation of learning, and safeguarding

We are in the grip of a global crisis. Not since the Second World War have nations been compelled to take such drastic action to protect their peoples.

On Wednesday (March 18) it was confirmed that schools across the UK are to close on Friday (March 20) because of the coronavirus emergency.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed that schools will remain open only for the children of key workers, including NHS staff, emergency service workers and delivery staff, and for vulnerable pupils and those with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs). The devolved governments will be implementing similar plans (for our report, see here).

The government’s Chief Medical Officer has said that COVID-19 is not akin to the seasonal flu, as previously suggested, and as such the pandemic is unlikely to subside in the spring and summer months. Schools will be disrupted for months and possibly longer. Indeed, Scotland’s first minister has said we should not expect schools to re-open before the summer.

Schools are doing all they can to help their staff and students and to support their communities. There is no right or wrong answer, only our best guesses. And context really does matter. Now is not the time to criticise their actions, or indeed inaction; we need to stand together and help each other through this.

Continuation of learning

Crises, though not commonplace, do inevitably happen. During my tenure as a teacher, leader and head, I had several to deal with including the murder of one pupil by another, the sudden death of a much-loved colleague, fires and floods, and bomb threats.

None compare with the scale of the current crisis, though, and I have nothing but admiration and respect for everyone working in our schools right now. They are truly public servants and heroes.

One priority as schools close their doors will be ensuring that education continues in some form. To this end, many schools have prepared learning packs for their students to take home or are providing access to online learning platforms, including the provision of remote teaching.

Next week, I will be offering advice on how to make a success of remote learning, but schools must think hard about how to reach those families who do not have internet, email or the digital resources needed to access online learning.

In the meantime, schools will undoubtedly have plans in place and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has published useful guidance that offers a solid starting point for schools: “Provide clear expectations to families and staff of what work will be carried out. For staff, consider any additional infrastructure, equipment and advice needed for those adjusting to home working, i.e. appropriate working hours and use of equipment, log-in details and remote access. For pupils, check what equipment they have access to at home and consider how to support those who are unable to access digital resources.”

Home or away?

Another urgent consideration as schools close is whether all staff will work from home or whether some will still come into school. Can those teaching staff who will work from home do so effectively? Will they have the resources they need? Will they have children of their own in need of childcare?

What about support staff? The school site will still require cleaners and catering staff, and caretaking staff. And what about administration staff? Office staff often handle frontline communications with parents/carers, the community and other external stakeholders and agencies. Will they still be needed on site? Or can they work remotely? Will all support staff, irrespective of the nature of their contracts, continue to paid and protected?

To begin with, from Monday, all schools will need to maintain some staffing presence on site as the children of key workers, vulnerable pupils and those with EHCPs are being told to attend as normal. Provision will then be rationalised on an area-by-area basis so that not every school needs to keep its gates open.

Going forward, schools will need to consider which staff might need to remain on site and if so there will be considerations about which staff to retain, what to do with staff working from home, the impact on pay and conditions, what childcare arrangements will look like in school, the safeguarding of students kept in school, maintaining the safety of the school site and so on.

Safeguarding

A key issue for teachers working online and from their homes is safeguarding. The ASCL guidance offers this advice: “Remind staff and students of vital principles such as avoiding one-to-one tutoring or messaging unless this is pre-approved and auditable.”

ASCL also advises that schools should consider alternative arrangements for raising safeguarding concerns, such as a hotline number. You will need to consider what to do in the case that all designated safeguarding leads are ill or unavailable. It adds: “Schools may have limited communication methods with pupils but remind staff not to share their personal phone numbers or contact details.”

We shall, equally, be looking to the government for further guidance as to how schools can be supported to fulfil their safeguarding duties.

SEND and vulnerable learners

We know now that some schools will stay open for students with EHCPs and for vulnerable students. However, not all SEND pupils have an EHCP so remember that some students with additional and different needs may still be working from home and our online teaching might need to reflect this.

The ASCL guidance states: “When making decisions about how and if schools will be able to deliver education to students during the period of closure, schools must take into consideration any reasonable adjustments it could make to enable students with disabilities to access those arrangements.”

For vulnerable learners, ASCL adds: “Consider how families experiencing extreme financial hardship will access the hardship fund at your school or local authority. Some schools are considering a central base for food distribution for those who won’t have access to food bank vouchers.”

Again, we will be looking to government for support on delivering free school meals funding to eligible families and Mr Williamson has said that a national voucher scheme will be put in place.

Other issues to consider include, according to ASCL work packs for pupils who don’t have access to technology, hotline numbers shared with most vulnerable families where they can get support and a phone line for school support.

Finance and governance

The National Governance Association (NGA) says that governing bodies will need to put in place arrangements to meet remotely, consider their levels of delegation so that fewer governors/trustees can make decisions, and decide their approach to chair’s action.

Guidance from the NGA adds: “It is more important than ever that those governing and working in schools and trusts communicate well and support each other. As well as maintaining the dialogue over current issues and the response, supportive messaging to staff and stakeholders will also be appreciated, especially by school leaders who are under a great deal of pressure.”

ASCL, meanwhile, recommends that schools keep a record and evidence of all additional costs and losses incurred due to the coronavirus.

Supporting staff, parents and pupils

There is also the human element to manage in a crisis. Worried parents, pupils and school staff will be looking to their headteacher and senior leadership team for leadership. Here are some suggestions and reflections that you might find helpful.

Be empathetic

Appreciate staff, students and parents/carers are human and fallible and, like you, are under immense stress. As such, they may not always act as professionally or courteously as we would like them to. It is not personal; we must not take it to heart.

Understand your staff’s pressure-points and provide help for dealing with stress and managing mental health. Be aware of changes in any colleague’s general demeanour and behaviour. Make sure all staff know where to go for help and repeatedly signpost staff to appropriate services.

We might wish to distribute guidance on how colleagues can protect their mental health. There is lots of mental health advice to be found, not least from wellbeing expert Dr Pooky Knightsmith, who has offered her tips for staying mentally well during the coronavirus pandemic. The Mental Health Foundation has also published advice, among many others (see further information).

Be supportive

As discussed, some schools may see a mixture of staff working on site and working from home. If staff ask your advice about whether to come in to work, you should ensure the decision is theirs (to make the decision for them could have repercussions). You should also reassure them that whatever they decide to do you will support them.

These are not normal times and so it may be necessary to suspend our normal policies and procedures including for managing staff absence. Right now, people need all the comfort we can give them.

Be patient and forgiving

Some parents will disagree with you whatever decision you take, and some will feel the need to vent their anger publicly such as in the local newspaper or on a parents’ Facebook page. Others will simply ignore your advice or direction and undermine you.

Again, try to appreciate that this is a very testing time for everyone and people need your patience and understanding more than ever. You are community leaders and people desperately need your leadership right now. Good leaders are magnanimous and benevolent. And, ultimately, when this is over, your detractors will need to be forgiven for any poor choices they make in the eye of the storm.

Be visible

It is tempting at times of heightened stress to descend to your bunker. And you will certainly need time to think through and make important decisions, as well as to craft regular communications to all your stakeholders. But, as I say above, people need your leadership and that means you need to be seen. So be visible, be available, and be understanding.

Keep communicating

People need to know what is happening and they need to feel informed and involved. Regular, measured communications are therefore vital during this crisis.

You should try to sound human in your written communications, so do not just copy and paste the official line. Instead, put it into friendly language that reflects your local context and sounds like you. Do still share useful links to official sources such as, in the case of the coronavirus, the NHS, Public Health England, the Department for Education and so on.

Beware of the tone and potential misreadings of your written communications. Often, it is best to word lengthy communications as FAQs to help reduce the possibility of misunderstandings and to keep your messages focused and useful.

Be open to questions and suggestions – indeed, use each communication to positively invite feedback. Having said this, it is also important to address misinformation firmly and publicly, so do not be afraid to correct misunderstandings, directly tackle unhelpful rumours, and refute feedback that is simply wrong.

Communicate via several different methods including email, text, on the website, and so on. It is also important during a fast-moving crisis to date-stamp all content because messages change quickly. Regularly review and update information shared via your website.

Don’t forget your pupils

We must not forget our students – young people are most in need of regular communications from us because they need reassurance and guidance. They are likely to feed off the anxieties of their parents and others and to be influenced by the misinformation on social media. A balance needs to be struck between keeping students informed and not spreading fear. The ASCL guidance urges us to take the time to “reduce worry and talk to young people about what is happening” and it signposts resources.

Manage the media

Many local newspapers will be quick to criticise your school, whatever you decide to do. And local papers like nothing better than a disgruntled parent. It is important, therefore, to liaise with the media to manage the message and to correct any inaccuracies. Media liaison should be conducted through a single, senior source and other staff need to be told not to talk to the media and who to pass enquiries onto. The media liaison needs to be knowledgeable and so should be involved in decision-making meetings so they know the latest thinking behind any actions being taken.

  • Matt Bromley is an education journalist and author with 20 years’ experience in teaching and leadership. He works as a consultant, speaker, and trainer. Visit www.bromleyeducation.co.uk and for Matt’s archive of best practice articles for SecEd, visit http://bit.ly/1Uobmsl

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