The following advice has been forwarded to all ISC members, and has come from the Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA) and its partners, AEGIS and BAISIS, in relation to the outbreak of Wuhan coronavirus. It is important for all schools, both day and boarding, to consider the situation. Schools should remember that BSA is not a medical authority, nor is the guidance intended as legal advice. Any decisions by a school in this area should involve its own medical staff in conjunction with local GPs. This is important if schools choose to quote the advice verbatim, as the BSA is also not a statutory authority.
Is there any change to BSA advice?
Essentially their advice remains the same, with the following key elements:
- Schools must ensure that appropriate arrangements are in place to accommodate any pupils who need it over the forthcoming half-term break, either with guardians or by keeping school facilities open. BSA’s advice, which most schools have followed, is to put this in place for all pupils from South-East Asia, as there is no way of knowing which countries will have travel restrictions in place in two weeks’ time.
- Schools must assess the risk of any visits by parents and carers taking any appropriate action and briefing relevant staff as fully as possible. Similar measures must be put in place for any proposed visits by prospective parents, pupils and agents. Schools must consider the impact on those affected when deciding on postponing or cancelling visits, but the safety of the school community must always be the primary concern.
- Whereas schools can put in place reasonable measures to protect the school community, they do not have the right to stop parents and carers taking their child out of school.
- Any restrictions imposed by schools must be clearly planned and communicated, and must relate to the travel and risk profile of those concerned. Schools must avoid placing unnecessary restrictions on people who are clearly beyond the incubation period, which is currently 14 days.
- Schools must proactively plan ahead for Easter. It is highly likely that matters will be very different then. The risk from the virus might have completely abated, or the list of countries where travel is not advised might have increased considerably. Schools must expect that pupils living in South-East Asia might not be able to travel and must also consider that some other countries might also be affected. Anyone choosing to travel should be advised that restrictions could well be in place before they return.
- Schools must actively support all those whose plans have been compromised by the current situation, and be particularly aware of the impact of enforced separation on boarders and their families. Schools need to have appropriate conversations with parents and pupils about their plans so that the best advice can be given to each individual family.
- Schools must ensure that all boarders are protected both in school and outside school. There have been isolated reports of children being targeted outside school on the basis of their ethnicity, and a perceived link to the virus. AEGIS advises that reasonable steps should be put in place to ensure boarders are protected when outside school, which includes expecting them not to leave school on their own. Robust measures must also be taken to respond to any associated bullying within school.
How has the situation developed?
The Health Secretary has now put powers into place which would allow for individuals to be kept in “supported isolation” if necessary, and has described the virus as a “serious and imminent threat” to the UK. However, the UK risk level remains moderate, and it has become clear that these powers are specifically designed to respond to a situation with those who have been repatriated. The powers will, however, also allow a speedy response should the virus spread more widely within the UK.
How widespread is the outbreak?
There are now over 40,000 confirmed cases and over 900 deaths, with the virus still concentrated on Hubei Province in China. The number of reported cases has stabilised, but it is too early to say if this trend will continue. The number of cases in the UK has increased, with the most recent cases coming not from China but from Singapore. This demonstrates that the risk profile of the virus is changing dynamically, and school responses must do the same.
How has travel been affected?
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office continues to advise against all travel to Hubei Province and all but essential travel to mainland China. This advice does not yet extend to Hong Kong, Macao, and other countries in the region, but several countries have put additional screening measures and restrictions in place. FCO travel advice for all countries can be found here. The advice makes it clear that anyone travelling to certain countries in South-East Asia must be prepared for additional control measures and for the fact that travel is being curtailed or disrupted because of airline cancellations, particularly to and from Hong Kong. The picture is changing dynamically, so schools are advised to check FCO advice for any relevant information. Those returning from the following countries and becoming symptomatic are asked to self-isolate and to contact 111:
- Republic of Korea
- Hong Kong
What about pupils who travel overseas and then return to school?
If a parent or carer still decides to require their child to travel, schools must make it clear that anyone returning from China will be required to spend a period of 14 days in the UK before returning to school, and should self-isolate during this time. BSA continues to advise similar action for Hong Kong, and it is very possible that this will need to be extended to other countries in the South-East Asia region. AEGIS has made it clear that their guardians are highly unlikely to be able to offer guardianship under such circumstances.
Although this continues to exceed current FCO advice, schools must plan for what could happen, rather than what has happened.
Schools have a right to take reasonable measures to protect their staff and pupils and can advise pupils not to leave and advise those from overseas not to visit, but schools do not have the right to prevent any parent from collecting their child if they wish to do so. Any measures put in place must also be reasonable. If a parent visits their child for the whole Easter holiday and has displayed no symptoms before the end of the holiday, current health protection guidance indicates that such a person is beyond the incubation period and does not represent a risk. It would not be reasonable, therefore, to impose additional restrictions at that point without good cause.
What happens if the school decides to stay open over Easter?
Some schools have decided to keep part of their facilities open over Easter. BSA advises that schools must ensure that appropriate risk-assessments and supervision arrangements are in place, and that any staff performing duties which are outside their normal remit should be suitably briefed and trained. If schools wish to charge for providing such facilities, this must be on a reasonable and proportionate basis and communicated clearly in advance. Where possible a suitable programme of activities should be put in place to address the boarders’ needs. Schools must also consider the impact on any staff who are required or volunteer to undertake additional duties. BSA is awaiting specific government advice regarding any school which might come close to the 295-day limit for accommodating children before needing to register as a Children’s Home and/or a private foster care arrangement if caring for pupils for more than 14 days during the holidays.
A number of guardianship companies are organising residential activities over Easter (many using boarding school facilities) to help with the demand in students. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for further details.
What should we be doing medically?
BSA is continuing to monitor advice from Public Health England, Health Protection Scotland and Public Health Wales, as well as other organisations, including MOSA (Medical Officers of Schools Association), and has written to Public Health England and to the Health Secretary. It has also, via Andrew Lewer MBE MP, been able to put questions directly to the Chief Medical Officer for England. While there have been no cases as yet at BSA member schools, the rise in UK cases means it is now prudent for schools to ensure they are making plans for the possibility of the virus appearing on site.
Schools should continue to insist on good infection control habits, as would always be the case, particularly during the winter flu season.
We will continue to share relevant updates from ISC and BSA, as the situation develops.