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Covid-19 schools health and safety matters

Schools should consider haring the responsibility and liability in regards to occupational health and safety matters.

One of the most important elements of any school’s risk management strategy is to ensure the safety of its visitors by warranting that all school buildings and facilities comply with the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) Act and applicable regulation.

Following the announcement last week that Grade seven and Matric pupils will be returning to school on 1 June 2020, it is imperative that schools exercise Covid-19 health and safety matters for integration post lockdown.

The Head of the Afroteq Advisory’s recently established OHSAfroteq division, Robert Palmer, has said that the Covid-19 pandemic has made an impact on managing the health and safety of SA schools.

“As we have seen from countries where schools have recently re-opened their doors for pupils, the outbreak of Covid-19 has drastically changed the landscape of the educational environment. There can be no shortcuts when schools are preparing to be Covid-19 ready.”

Getting schools to adapt to “the new normal”

There are various important measures that teachers, support staff and pupils will need to take and consistently adhere to as part of schooling in the “new normal” if they are serious about returning to a physical school environment. This includes diligently wearing the required PPE in and on the school premises at all times, downsizing the number of student in classrooms and no longer rotating pupils between classes. Instead, Palmer recommends that teachers should be the ones rotating classes in order to minimise the threat of spreading germs.

He added that pupils and teachers need to wear face shields or cloth face masks. It is recommended that pupils and teachers wash and sanitise their hands throughout the day.

“Teachers and staff are responsible for cleaning and sanitising classrooms and common areas daily, combined with a weekly deep cleaning which entails fogging or demisting all areas, cleaning surfaces with disinfectant and sanitising all areas and/or surfaces.”

Identifying “high risk” areas at schools

Even if pupils are kept in one classroom throughout the day and their movement is greatly restricted, OHSAfroteq says there are still certain ‘high risk’ areas where extra vigilance is required.  

Palmer has recommended that areas, where pupils movements are difficult to control such as sanitary facilities and drop off or pick up zones, should be considered high-risk areas.

Even if pupils are kept in one classroom throughout the day and their movement is greatly restricted, there are still certain ‘high risk’ areas where extra vigilance is required.

Pupils and parents should also be responsible and pro-active by ensuring that personal items such as school bags, pencil cases, cellphones and stationery are cleaned and disinfected daily using a disinfecting wipe. As far as possible, pupils are advised to keep all non-essential items at home and opt for “ziplock” packaging for non-essential items.

Daily screening and record-keeping

As per WHO and Government regulations, schools and places of work should conduct a daily checking of temperatures of everybody who enters their premises. 

In an ideal situation, schools should have a security guard on duty to check temperatures and screening everyone before they are allowed to enter the school grounds.

“However, if this is impractical or creates congestion at larger schools, we recommend that designated screening areas be identified where a Covid-19 compliance officer will be responsible for the screening process. Detailed records must be kept of every screening, listing the temperature reading and visual symptom of inspection.”

Daily screening and record-keeping

As per WHO and Government regulations, schools and places of work should conduct a daily checking of temperatures of everybody who enters their premises. 

Schools should have a security guard on duty to check temperatures and screening everyone before they are allowed to enter the school grounds.

Designated screening areas should be identified where a Covid-19 compliance officer is responsible for the screening process. Detailed records must be kept of every screening, listing the temperature reading and visual symptom of inspection.

Dealing with a suspected Covid-19 case

Every school should ensure that it has an adequately sized isolation room or area that is large enough to accommodate 10 % of the population of the school compliment, whilst maintaining the prescribed social distancing of a minimum of 1.5 meters. In most cases, OHSAfroteq suggests that schools should convert a section of the school hall into a quarantine area equipped with the required PPE, such as FPP1 surgical masks, gloves and face shields beds (where possible).

Palmer stressed the importance of schools following a standard operating procedure for dealing with a suspected Covid-19 infection at schools. Such a workplace plan should: 1) isolate the student or staff member immediately, 2) provide them with the required PPE, 3) follow the screening protocol and keeping records, 4) contact the relevant authorities to report the case and act on their instructions. It is important to gather all the necessary information from the patient, such as travel history, names of people they had contact within the last 14-21 days.

The school is responsible for making arrangements to transport the patient off-site without putting other pupils, staff or the public at risk to contract the virus. Palmer added that it is to protect the privacy of pupils who may display symptoms of the virus. 

“It is also imperative that the school protects the privacy of pupils or staff members who displays signs of illness in order to avoid stigmatisation. Each school must have an anti-bullying policy in place that is enacted in cases like these. Moreover, the POPPI Act must also be followed to protect each person’s personal information.”

Partnering with professionals gives peace of mind

If a school is found to be negligent, it can legally be held liable in the event of a pupil or member of staff contracting the Covid-19 on the premises. If the school has done everything as required by the Government and all possible control measures and procedures as listed earlier are in place, it will not be held liable. 

Palmer advises that schools and businesses should partner with a professional OHS company for health and safety matters for integration post lockdown. Such companies help their clients prepare by sharing the responsibility and liability in regards to occupational health and safety matters.

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