At Bishop Cotton School, Shimla, we have just given most of our pupils two months of precious schooling in a relatively normal environment using the ‘bubble’ system. As national medical services threaten to be overwhelmed we have had to scale back our operation for the time being, but as soon as we are able the ‘bubbles’ will re-open.
Crucially we are a residential school so we have a much reduced footfall into our campus. In preparing to re-open we asked our day boarders (mainly the children of staff) to move into the dormitories thus reducing one risk. The next action was to insist that all pupils returning to school had a negative pcr test taken within a certain time frame (72 hours). Again, this did not eliminate risk, but it did reduce it.
In January, as we read the SOPs for the re-opening of schools, we emphasized the need to ensure transparent communications with parents about the challenges we were facing. Increasingly it became clear that whilst we would try everything that we could to reduce the risk of children being exposed to coronavirus, we could not eliminate it.
During our screening process we did find that three students had tested positive. Their contacts were traced and isolated, and we were able to support the boys back to full health. We kept everyone informed of this and most parents supported our efforts because they were concerned about the effect of the last year on their children. Having welcomed back most of our pupils we noticed a high proportion of students with a BMI (Body Mass Index) that would be regarded as either overweight or obese, and that it took some time for them to re-learn the basic social skills of getting on with their peers after a year of interacting virtually. We wait to really establish how much genuine online learning has taken place in the last year amongst our children. Our parents weighed these concerns against the data which suggests that children of school age are the least likely group to develop a life-threatening case of covid-19 together with our systems for supporting any ill child, and they sent them back to us.
We staggered the return of different classes and limited their return to set dates on a weekend so that each class could quarantine together. Pupil drop off was strictly controlled and families said goodbye to their wards from their cars. The boys received a medical examination and their luggage was sanitized before the boys went straight to their dormitories to join their batch mates.
Thereafter the planning was straightforward and based around the ‘bubble system’ a term developed in UK Boarding schools in the last year. The ‘bubble’ is a core group of pupils (usually the same class) who live in a self-contained group that sleeps, eats, and studies together, and doesn’t mix with any other group. Everyone in the group has a daily medical check-up with one of the infirmary staff. Inevitably they must have interaction with others from outside the ‘bubble’, but this is done using normal covid protocols including mask wearing and social distancing. In the worst-case scenario, where a child becomes covid positive, the ‘bubble’ can be isolated and appropriate steps taken to treat the unwell and quarantine the others without the rest of the school necessarily stopping.
In a residential school, there are four main groups of adults that the children can expect to come in contact with. Teachers, Infirmary Staff, Caterers and Hostel Wardens/Matrons. All other staff were told to keep their distance. Through careful management, there should be no reason why the children should come in contact with any adults who aren’t observing all covid protocols.
Our biggest challenge in this respect, is that not all of our staff live within the campus. This set a major challenge of how to prevent them bringing the virus into the campus with them. In the future, we might simply stop them all from coming in, but with those who did come in we stressed the importance of their covid responsibilities and conducted basic checks such as temperature and oxygen checks. We also tried to promote a culture of openness so staff would not come to work if they felt they might be infected and they would also take similar precautionary steps if one of their household fell ill. The most proactive step has been to insist that all eligible staff were vaccinated and the response at all levels was excellent with over 75% now jabbed. Clearly there are medical reasons that prevent a few from taking the jab, but now that everyone over 18 can register then we will insist on a date after which all adults on site will need to have been vaccinated.
The missing element at the moment is the ability to test regularly. We have received excellent support from our local Chief Medical Officer, and initially it was straightforward for us to access testing, but the health services are now under huge pressure with the growth in cases. In countries that have made more progress with re-opening their schools, weekly or even daily testing are the norm. Staff and pupil vaccination (hopefully by September in some countries) will be essential. Frequent testing is achieved using lateral flow kits (rapid diagnostic testing) – we will try to obtain these when we next have a chance of opening.
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