On Thursday, Graham Vials and Tristan Meears-White from Ward Hadaway law firm presented a webinar on preparing for the wider reopening of schools, with over 200 delegates from across the region watching. The webinar covered how employees were impacted by the decision to open schools on 1st June, and the responsibilities and obligations of schools when it comes to ensuring a safe workplace.
Both Graham and Tristan noted that while there is a lot of information and guidance available, it comes from many different organisations which may provide contradictory advice, with the risk of information overload which naturally creates a confusing situation for schools.
With this in mind, it is important to get back to the basics of the core responsibilities of an employer and keeping employees safe. Central to this, both emphasised the need for planning and communication with staff at all stages as crucial.
They highlighted the fact that no school would be the same, with general guidance having to be applied to the specific school profile. Employers would need to justify decisions they make, and so again the importance of planning, risk assessments, and consultation with staff is clear.
The decisions being made do not simply present legal hurdles, but ones of ‘heart and mind’, and employers should be looking to reassure staff. Where staff may be refusing to come in, it is important to consider the personal circumstances. Important circumstances to consider are issues of childcare, if they have to use public transport, or if they fall into a vulnerable category (or if they live with someone who does).
While fears of increased risk of infection is not in itself enough for employees to refuse attending work, both Graham and Tristan once again emphasised the importance of communicating with staff, and that refusing to compromise could lead to staff taking sickness absence due to anxiety. Employers should be looking to remind staff of any workplace confidential counselling that can be provided.
More specific questions looked at provision of PPE and taking temperatures, and reference was made to the current guidance on this (that both are not currently required by schools).
They also noted that this is a changing situation, and plans would have to develop accordingly. As schools have to make these changes and plans, we at Schools North East will be looking to support school leaders in the region as much as we can, both in the run up to 1st June and after. If you have any questions about the issues raised here, please do let us know.