Chief Executive of Star Academies, Hamid Patel, shares the protective measures his schools have taken to minimise the number of pupils and staff who have needed to self-isolate when an outbreak occurs, while ensuring all pupils and staff are safe.
We’re incredibly proud that Star Academies’ robust protective measures have allowed our schools to maximise the number of pupils remaining in school in the event of a confirmed COVID-19 case. We have had a number of confirmed cases across the 29 schools in the trust since the start of this academic year. But between the protective measures we’ve implemented and our track and trace system, we have been able to minimise the number of pupils and staff who have needed to self-isolate.
7 ways we’re protecting bubbles to avoid transmission
Bubbles are the new normal for organising pupils. But to be effective, bubbles require tightly structured management otherwise they risk a high percentage of the school population self-isolating and further disruption to fragile recovery plans. Here’s how we are using and maintaining bubbles to avoid transmissions in school:
1. Assigning bubbles to home bases
We want to limit pupil movement within the school building as much as possible. In primary schools and Key Stage 3, pupils remain in consistent classes as far as possible in a designated teaching space. For older secondary pupils, who are studying different options, pupils may be part of several subject classes so we encourage them to take particular care over distancing, sanitising and respiratory hygiene. The actual size of bubbles depends on context but should never be larger than a year group and will often be as small as a class of 30.
2. Micro-manage corridor movement
We have found that carefully plotting the movement of pupils on corridors and through communal spaces helps minimise the likelihood of cross-contamination. Sometimes classes may need to move to and from their home base to a specialist room, such as a science lab. We needed to think through these scenarios and now have a process in place; the pupils move from their home base when the corridors are empty and are escorted by a member of staff, forward-facing in a line.
3. Maintain accurate, non-negotiable seating plans
All our pupils sit in allocated places, facing the front of the classroom. Carefully constructed seating plans enable the easy identification of any pupil who has been sitting within a two-metre radius of a confirmed case. Where a secondary pupil is taught in different classes, we make sure they sit near consistent peers as far as possible. It is important that seating plans are collated in a place that is readily accessible to leaders and administrative staff. This will save precious time in the event that a call needs to be made for COVID-19 advice.
4. Control breaks and lunchtimes
Pupils need time to relax but tight management of social interactions is necessary, otherwise the effort that has been expended on distancing in lessons will be wasted. We encourage pupils to interact with a consistent small group of friends, from whom they will need to maintain distance. By keeping a note in their planners of who they have spent their school social time with, pupils can aid contact tracing. Staggered breaks and lunchtimes, along with the use of designated areas for specific bubbles, help minimise congestion. Where possible, pupils spend some time outdoors as the virus is less likely to be transmitted outside - and young people definitely value a change of scene!
5. Monitor, adjust, repeat
Maintaining a distance from friends doesn’t come naturally to any of us. For those pupils who are innately tactile, it’s easy to forget the ‘hand, face, space’ advice. There’s no magic solution other than to keep reminding them, in a positive and nurturing way, that by following the rules they are taking care of themselves, each other and their families. The same applies to wearing face-coverings. These have become part of everyday life in our secondary schools. Our pupils understand the reasons for wearing them indoors and are sensible about their use.
By monitoring pupils’ movement around the school, leaders can identify ‘hot spots,’ notice children (and staff) who need some extra encouragement and make any tweaks to the daily routine. By checking whether pupils are in their allotted seats and that scheduled movement is calm, and by feeding back on their observations, leaders build a sense of affirmation that can be powerful in alleviating stress.
6. Involve parents
Being a parent during the outbreak of COVID-19 is hard work. We keep parents informed about how the school is operating and what they can do to help. They are the schools’ partners in protecting the school community against COVID-19. Of course we can’t tell families how to live their lives but have found sharing sensible information about minimising contacts and responding to symptoms is enormously helpful.
Our experience of administering supervised lateral flow testing in schools gave pupils and their families reassurance. We continue to encourage parents to engage with home testing. We have advised them to support their children's self-swabbing on two evenings per week rather than trying to fit this process into the busy morning routine.
7. Prepare to respond
We want to be prepared for all scenarios. If, despite careful preparations and bubble maintenance strategy, a pupil or staff member develops symptoms, we have a response tightly scripted. An analysis of seating plans, and a discussion with the symptomatic individual about their social interactions at break, lunch and on school transport will enable the close contacts within bubbles to be swiftly identified. All our schools also have the contact details of the local authority public health team and DfE at hand. By creating scripts to notify the DfE and LA of cases, and to notify parents of the need for pupils to self-isolate, this gives staff confidence that the bases are covered.
Reduce the risk of transmission in your school
The GOV.UK guidance explains the actions school leaders should take to minimise the risk of transmission of COVID-19 in their school, including a system of controls, asymptomatic testing, and measures to support the school workforce.
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