Staff and pupils recommended to layer up as schools work to keep classrooms ventilated

Staff and pupils are being told to layer up as schools struggle to keep classrooms both ventilated for covid safety and warm during dropping temperatures.

Unions are urgently seeking updated information on how schools should manage the winter period with windows and doors open, with heads predicting heating costs could double. 

The Health and Safety Executive says as part of its visits to schools, inspectors will be looking at how they are ensuring classrooms have the appropriate ventilation, alongside other measures, to help reduce the spread of Covid-19. 

But Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary at the National Education Union, said the government’s guidance is “lacking” in terms of the balance between fresh air and thermal comfort. 

“With the colder months approaching, the DfE needs to provide schools with urgent practical advice on how to ensure that that safe ventilation is maintained whilst at the same time ensuring a comfortable working temperature.”

The Department for Education guidance states that it is important to ensure “good ventilation” and “maximising this wherever possible”.

They give an example of “opening windows and propping open doors” where safe to do so and HSE guidance also says that ceiling fans or desk fans could be used to help with the circulation of outside air.

Teachers took to Twitter as temperatures dropped this week questioning how to navigate ventilation, with some highlighting how cold they felt already. 

One school in Dorset told Schools Week that a health safety consultant from their local council said that windows and doors “do need to be opened. So it may pay to speak to staff and students just to reiterate this and say the heating will be on but they may need to dress in layers on cooler days due to the ventilation required.”

HSE’s Approved Code of Practice suggests the minimum temperature in a workplace should normally be at least 16 degrees Celsius to comply with the law.

The NEU’s position is that classrooms should remain at least 18 degrees.

HSE said they recognised the need to optimise the fresh air in a classroom, while balancing a reasonable temperature. A spokesperson added schools should take a “pragmatic approach to 

balancing the different risks”.

Guidance on ventilation by Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE), which is linked to on the HSE website, says draughts from open windows can be mitigated by moving desks and wearing “warmer fleeces”. 

While the body is currently evaluating its guidance, CIBSE says it may be “necessary to have the room heating on more than normal. This will incur energy penalties; however, these are deemed acceptable as the increased ventilation will help remove any airborne virus particles from the building.”

But Kate Greig, executive head of Coastal Academies Trust, said that heating bills are “extraordinary” anyway. She’s expecting monthly heating costs of £1,000 to double at one school.

She said: “When heating a big building, it takes ages for the heating to make an impact. Are we going to have to keep the heating on on Sundays so that it’s bearable on Monday mornings?

“There’s a worry about all the costs through Covid anyway. But we are going to keep the windows and doors open and keep the heating on.”

School leaders’ union ASCL has asked HSE and DfE for clarification on the issue. 

A DfE spokesperson said: “We are asking schools to provide good ventilation wherever possible, but also expect schools to maintain a safe and comfortable environment.”