As the economy is reopening amidst continued unlocking of public activity during the Covid-19 pandemic, the decision to reopen schools has elicited mixed reactions. Although some states are allowing pupils back on campus, many are still wary. Attendance at schools remains voluntary as per the Centre’s guidelines which specify that parents can decide whether to send their wards to school or not.
Globally too, reopening of schools has provoked a variety of reactions. While some data published in August had shown that children represented less than 5 per cent of all infections in 27 European countries, there is still trepidation because children can become carriers or spreaders.
Whenever schools reopen In India, of course, wearing masks will be mandatory, strict hand hygiene routine will have to be followed, and students will be asked to sit six feet apart in classrooms. Yet, the apprehension over reopening of schools is natural considering whenever the day will come when staff, parents and children congregate at the school gates, the school has to ensure they are entirely prepared.
From a health and safety perspective, this is the time when there needs to be very stringent legislation or standards for schools in terms of Covid-19 safety. In fact, compliance has never been more important. It is essential that schools take all “reasonably practicable” steps to ensure the premises are safe before they are ready to welcome students and staff members back.
The crucial hinge in any health and safety management system is risk assessment, and the management of Covid-19 is no exception. Now is the time for schools to dedicate resources towards a rapid risk-assessment framework along with a comprehensive plan to identify and determine appropriate control measures to help mitigate issues arising from Covid-19.This whole procedure of maintaining safety policies, procedures, and protocols is bound to require an immense amount of commitment.
A risk assessment is not about creating reams of paperwork, but rather about identifying sensible measures to control the risks, and the role of others in supporting that. The risk assessment will help school authorities to decide whether they have done everything they need to. Schools now have to balance the educational, social and emotional needs of their students along with the health and safety of students as well as staff in the midst of the pandemic. Moreover, areas of focus will no longer be limited to just staff and students, but will also have to cover all other users of the schools, including individuals such as drivers, delivery persons and non-teaching staff. Schools will also have to be diligent about all kinds of maintenance and ensuring that the compliance is in top form.
Though protocols may be in place, schools should determine, in collaboration with state and local health officials to the extent possible, whether and how to implement each of these considerations. While undertaking all of this risk assessment may seem like a daunting task, fortunately, schools can seek help that is available in this area. There are expert organisations which can assist schools through support and consultancy by helping determine what actions need to be taken to ensure Covid-19 safety compliance. These organisations provide detailed assessment about the safety guidelines remotely by taking virtual tours of the school, examining documentation, asking pertinent questions and talking to administration staff, especially in computer/science laboratories, dining space, assembly area and other spaces within the premises.
Such an assessment is essentially a review of the manner in which school authorities are trying to prevent Covid-19 since it is necessary to have a comprehensive and methodical approach in the whole process. The assessment entails a framework that aims to create robust safety protocols and arrangements, designed to effectively manage the risk of Covid-19 as far as is reasonably possible within the school premises. These guidelines offer a host of control measures which can be combined to provide the best practical protection to students and staff members. Implementation of protocols will be guided by what is feasible, practical, acceptable, and tailored to the needs of the school. It is also critical that strategies are developed in such a manner that they can be revised and adapted depending on the status of the pandemic.
Moreover, the assessment is based on a host of areas including Assessing risks, Planning control measures, Allocating roles and responsibilities, Implementing and maintaining controls, communication and training, Monitoring effectiveness and reviewing and revising arrangements. Within these, the guidelines also cover details on Control Measures, including points like How to Minimise the risk of transmission, Total avoidance of personal contact, Health control and surveillance, Social distancing, Personal hygiene, Use of personal protective equipment, PPE, Workplace cleaning and Workplace ventilation. Although the safety expert organisations will help in developing the framework, it will then be the responsibility of all the stakeholders in the school including administration staff, teachers, students and other staff members to ensure due compliance.
In India, the guidelines are designed taking into account the current best practices in occupational health and safety guidance issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO), Government of India, The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the European Commission.
Unfortunately, however, the demand from Indian schools in terms of Covid-19 risk-safety assessments is currently lackadaisical. There is a need for more schools to come ahead and undertake Covid-19 risk assessment before there are official directives to reopen schools. After all, the health and safety of our children is paramount.
(The author is Head of Audit and Consultancy, British Safety Council-India. Views expressed are personal, and do not necessarily reflect that of Outlook magazine.)