How UK independent schools should prepare for coronavirus disruption

11 Feb 2020, 16:31

Many Chinese pupils are set to go home to mainland China or Hong Kong for February half-term. Vicky Wilson sets out what all independent schools should be doing to prepare

Pupils from China and Hong Kong make up the biggest single group of overseas students in the UK’s independent schools but the Foreign Office has advised people in the UK to avoid all but essential travel to China. Independent schools must reinforce this with pupils and their families though missing a reunion is hard on everyone.

The most important thing schools should do is to contact parents and ask them what their travel plans are. While many Chinese pupils and their families will have been planning for a reunion in China during the half-term week, it’s important that schools discuss this with them to ensure they understand the risks. China has introduced exit screening at airports, and is refusing to let people with symptoms leave the country. Schools should make sure families understand that their children risk being quarantined, either in China or in the UK, for a period of weeks if they contact Coronavirus.

The most important thing schools should do is to contact parents

Should students end up in quarantine, then with exams just a few months away, schools should have a plan in place so pupils can continue their studies with as little disruption as possible. Quarantine for Coronavirus in the UK lasts two weeks and schools must have a way to get lessons and homework to students who are unfortunate enough to find themselves in that situation.

School should also establish what arrangements are in place for the children who unexpectedly find themselves staying in the UK. Chinese pupils at independent schools are required to have legal guardians in the UK – often these will be family members or friends of their parents. Schools should realise that these individuals may not be available to take care of them if they are forced to cancel a trip back to China. If that is the case, schools must ensure that alternative arrangements are made. Bodies like AEGIS (the Association for the Education and Guardianship of International Students) can help to make sure overseas students have an appropriate temporary guardian if necessary.

It may be wise to keep boarding houses open during the holidays. If a number of Chinese pupils are unable to return to China as planned during the half-term holiday, schools should consider whether they should keep their boarding houses open and staffed. This is likely to be less of an administrative burden than arranging alternative guardianship for a large number of pupils at very short notice.

With exams just a few months away schools should have a plan in place

Even if the school and boarding facilities are closed during the holiday, it is important that the school remains in contact with pupils and their families as the Coronavirus situation develops. Pupils and their parents in China are likely to have urgent questions and the schools may need to contact them if mainland China, Hong Kong, the UK or the EU change their approaches to travel and quarantine. Members of staff should therefore be available to talk to parents throughout half term.

Finally, in case the worst should happen, schools should have at least one member of staff who knows what to look for. For some pupils, travel to China may be unavoidable. Schools must ensure that their medical staff are trained to spot Coronavirus symptoms, as well as the correct protocol for handling a suspected Coronavirus infection. Even if no pupils are travelling to China, this is still good practice.

With a little planning, even at this late stage, independent schools can prepare for the disruption caused by Coronavirus and make sensitive accommodations without derailing the studies of their students.

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