Coronavirus: Schools urged to take ‘calm’ approach as illness spreads

Clare Flintoff, chief executive of ASSET Education. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Clare Flintoff, chief executive of ASSET Education. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

In her latest column, CLARE FLINTOFF - chief executive of ASSET Education, which runs several Suffolk schools - talks about how teachers have dealt with the coronavirus outbreak.

Coronavirus has dominated headlines and news reports in recent weeks Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHO

Coronavirus has dominated headlines and news reports in recent weeks Picture: GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHOTO - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The return to school after the February half-term break last week coincided with the news that coronavirus had reached northern Italy.

COVID19, a new strain of the family of viruses known as coronaviruses (CoV), had spread to popular holiday destinations where families were enjoying half term holidays and school ski trips were passing through.

It couldn't have happened at a worse time, with the school gates opening and people returning, quick decision making was needed.

Should we allow people back into school? Where had they been? Was it safe?

Coronavirus pods have been put up at Ipswich Hospital. Picture: ARCHANT

Coronavirus pods have been put up at Ipswich Hospital. Picture: ARCHANT - Credit: ARCHANT

Some arrived and were sent home, others were nervous about bringing children back to school and stayed away.

Across our 14 schools we were struck by the number of destinations people had travelled from, and the links that families had with countries across the world - clear evidence of the global nature of our society today.

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We became necessarily very familiar with the line "above, but not including, Pisa" in northern Italy.

Heartened by the cooperative nature of the discussions with parents, we felt we were all in this together - headteachers and parents, trying to make the best and most sensible decisions in order to keep everyone as safe as possible.

We decided it wasn't sensible for teachers to be responsible for checking whether children were developing symptoms and asked families who had travelled back from the newly defined areas of northern Italy to stay away for 14 days.

We did the same with travellers who were close to the outbreak in Tenerife, although this didn't appear in any official government advice.

In my third letter to parents since the outbreak in Hubei province in China, I emphasised good communication between families and headteachers and suggested that schools could provide work for children to complete at home where necessary.

We are just trying to do the right thing, often second-guessing the situation and making the best decisions that we can based on limited evidence. None of us know the scale of damage this virus will create in the longer term.

Coronaviruses (CoV) are not new - remember the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS CoV) and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS CoV)? They are zoonotic, meaning that they originated in animals and have transmitted to people.

Apparently several known coronaviruses are circulating in animals that have not yet infected humans. Key to the prevention of transmission of these viruses to humans in the first place, and the spread amongst humans, is good hygiene practice.

It would seem apposite to remind ourselves of the importance of hand-washing and limiting the spread of infections generally in our schools and homes.

Without wanting to cause alarm, we are teaching children about regular and thorough hand-washing, covering mouths and noses when coughing or sneezing, using a tissue and binning it.

Good habits like this start young and it is worth the time spent reinforcing this with young children so that it becomes a habit for them.

At this time of the year many infections, from the common cold to influenza, are circulating wherever humans are congregated. Schools are no exception.

In an average year 600 people die in the UK from flu and related complications. In some years this figure reaches more than 10,000.

Last year one leading expert said that the strain of winter flu was so virulent that it left people who were previously fit and healthy critically ill - yet we have come to live with this without it causing widespread alarm or panic and many of us don't even consider getting vaccinated against it.

Whatever happens in the next few weeks and months it is clear that a calm, co-ordinated, and co-operative strategy is needed on a global scale.

Locally we can keep each other as safe as possible with some simple hygiene measures that are of benefit whatever we are facing. Now, wash your hands!

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