What to do when you get a positive COVID result in your school

Will Teese, a headteacher at a large mixed comprehensive school on roll on the outskirts of Leicester with 1500 students, discusses the lessons he learnt when he had a positive case of COVID at his school

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on We Are In Beta

Our case was reported at midday on a Friday. We alerted the PHE Team immediately and received an initial call 20 minutes later when we were promised a full, follow-up risk assessment and next steps call that afternoon. The call never came. I rang again spoke to a new advisor who reported that the case had been closed; clearly not, and I was promised another call.  

I sat waiting at school until 5 pm; as no call had been received I tried again only to find the office was closed. I was then directed to the ‘emergency team’ and had to go through all the details again. It wasn’t until six pm that I finally spoke to someone and, even then, what was shared was of limited value, and we had already taken all actions advised.

The people I spoke to were highly professional, and lovely individuals, but I sensed the system hasn’t got the capacity required to respond quickly.

Lesson 1: Don’t wait to be advised what to do; act on what you know, and in the best interests of your community.

  • Do your own track and trace quickly.
  • Establish close contacts as quickly as possible – send home and isolate for 14 days.
  • Establish which rooms the case has been in, so that a deep clean can be organised.
  • Have ready your staff contact list – with DOB and ‘phone numbers for track and trace – and the same for students.

Lesson 2: Communication is key; being transparent and honest is critical – and be prepared for a long night.

The community member who tested positive was, understandably, very anxious about their name getting out, and the impact this might have on them and their family. Think now about what support you might offer, and how they can be reassured. I made it clear in a follow up email to all staff that there was to be no engagement with the media, or names/details to be mentioned. All communication was to come from me – a firm line was taken on this. Be clear now what you will, and will not, share with the community and staff.

Formerly shielding and vulnerable staff were very anxious and concerned about contact, their health and what would happen next. I have promised meetings to review their individual risk assessments and to adjust accordingly.

I debated in my mind next steps, and had a very sleepless night; I ended up drafting a letter to parents at 2.30am and sharing with our leadership team to tweak. I felt it important to control the message and be honest with our community. We have no media team so I got the team to read, recheck and alter until it was right. It would be worth having a letter of this type as ready to go as possible, sooner rather than later.

Our letter was tweaked and signed off by the trust board and sent on Saturday morning. The email floodgates were then opened by anxious parents. I established an email triage.

  • Simple – admin to follow up.
  • Moderate – SLT to follow up.
  • Difficult – myself to follow up.

This allowed the management of my workload.

A deep clean was organised and I also requested that all the slight changes we had made to our plans were reflected within our Risk Mitigation Plan for COVID-19. This was completed by business manager and deputies. I wanted to be sure it reflected what we now had in place, as several small changes had been made as the week had progressed.

Lesson 3: Keep your plans up-to-date and have a clear communication plan and strategy in place now.

I have to admit to feeling a little overwhelmed by Saturday morning as, with no trust, it was all on me; I was mentally drained, and struggling to switch off. It was then I decided to reach out to my network (PIXL). What a great move. Immediately, I was given support and had some more people to sound off to, plus I was now in contact with other schools facing a similar situation. Speaking to these headteachers was very reassuring.

Lesson 4: Don’t be alone, reach out, ask for help and share your worries.  Be vulnerable with your team and share your struggle – pull on them and use them too.

Having managed to relax a little on Saturday – if you can call skateboarding with the kids relaxing – by Sunday I felt more focused and back in control. I made a video for staff outlining the issues, expectations and what I needed from them. I made use of the brilliant advice from James Heale and focused of the 3CSs.

  • Care – show care and compassion in all you do.
  • Control – show clear control of the situation and next steps.
  • Commitment – demonstrate a clear commitment to do all you can and make the community as safe as possible.

This proved to be a brilliant mental framework to operate within.  I made the same style video for students too, in readiness for Monday’s assembly.

Lesson 5: Use the collective wisdom of your network, and be confident in your leadership

We have now created a simple checklist of actions to take if we receive another positive case. This is merely my experience thus far; I’m sure I could have done some things differently, nor am I claiming to be a model of best practice; I am just offering something to consider.  

The coming days, I would imagine, will be the real test and I will update on what I learn then too.

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