Back in March the language of coronavirus was not dissimilar to a 1940s Pathe Newsreel. Government met as a “war cabinet”, the NHS was the “front line” and we were going to “go to war with the virus”. By early April I wouldn’t have been surprised if the daily Downing Street briefing included a Dad’s Army style map showing how the virus was being repelled at the borders. But, despite the hyperbole, some of what turned the tide on Covid-19 was much simpler – soap and bleach.

If any army has allowed us to return to some semblance of normality, it has been an army of cleaners, or at least that is my experience at the Stamford Endowed Schools.

Like all schools, Stamford closed to the majority of pupils in late March and moved overnight to remote learning. Through April and May we had children of key workers in school every day, and by the end of June we had managed to bring every child – who was able to travel and who wanted to attend – back into school as the guidance permitted. There is no magic to how we achieved this, it was simply planning, teamwork, and some investment.

Planning and adapting

Involving many people in the planning stages proved key; this has been no time for the autocratic style of leadership that is often appropriate for immediate crises. Our Covid team has been broad and included teachers, operations, IT, marketing, HR and the school nurse – the tentacles of this crisis spread widely, so the team similarly needed to cover every base. Throughout, we have also drawn on the expertise of classroom teachers, the housemasters and site maintenance staff – they are the ones who know what is possible and ultimately made the plan successful.

Since March our mantra has been to follow government guidance. Guidance could have been more timely, and in some cases it could have been clearer (I have had to check my interpretation with our insurers on at least two occasions), but generally I think the intent and spirit of the guidance has been clear. What did come through, and this should already be part of our DNA as independent schools, was that each school must manage the return of pupils in the best way for its own circumstances.

Physical changes

Our junior school re-opened first, with each class split in half and pupils coming into school on alternate days; the class teacher led one bubble and the TA the other. We are fortunate in that we have three entrances to our junior school and, therefore, did not have to consider staggered start or finish times. Instead parents were directed to their own year group drop-off zone where children were collected by staff. We installed outdoor sinks at each entrance so the children could wash their hands before entering the building – the first of many additional costs which may eventually prove to be covered by insurance, but as I write are not.

Stripping back – just far enough

Each classroom has been stripped back and any “unnecessary” furniture and fixtures removed. Some discussion was needed between teaching and maintenance staff to agree a definition of “unnecessary”; the balance between easy to clean and a meaningful educational environment is a fine one. We have also stocked each classroom with hand sanitiser (we found a foam version that was less harsh on children’s skin) and tissues.

In junior school classrooms we made no attempt at social distancing and adopted social bubbles of no more than 12. More lessons moved outside where each bubble had its own play area and a small gazebo. Again, we are fortunate to have space.

The approach in the senior schools mirrored that of the junior school – clean, clean and then clean some more. Here, though, we have managed to enforce social distancing between pupils and staff.

We deliberately made use of classrooms that are large, airy, close to the entrance, and near toilets. Science and the other practical subjects re-ordered their curriculum to focus on theory for a term, thereby avoiding the risk of shared equipment. We also implemented the controls that are now commonplace; two-meter markings, queuing outside, signs, new sinks and hand sanitiser.

Reassurance for all

What reassured parents and staff most, however, was the significant step up in the cleaning regime. It was obvious from the moment that re-opening became a possibility that everyone expected a very high standard of cleaning and for it to be constant. Fortunately, our cleaning and catering teams are all employed in the domestic team; we were therefore able to move 90 per cent of the catering team on to cleaning duties without any HR difficulties.

This increase in manpower meant that each classroom and the communal spaces could be deep cleaned each evening, and regular cleaning took place during the day. The visibility of cleaners has been one of the reasons our staff and parents have been so happy to return to school.

To PPE or not to PPE?

PPE has been a thorny issue at Stamford throughout this crisis. Our approach in the summer was to follow government guidance and conclude it was not necessary.

However, a small majority of staff did question this, and so at one point I purchased some medical grade face masks. At the time masks were in very short supply and I bought the whole stock on one website – all 42 of them; I’m not sure they did ever arrive!

With the start of the autumn term, we are diverting from government guidance slightly – we have bought a stock of reusable fabric face coverings (we are deliberately not calling them masks) and will issue one to every pupil who uses the school buses. They will also be optional for teachers when they come into close contact with pupils. PPE proper – medical grade – is reserved for our nurses.

Boarding

At the time of writing, boarding is an area we are still considering. In the summer term we decided it was too hard to offer, but the demand from parents was not there anyway. We will continue to look at the guidance from BSA; but I can already see that the approach will be similar: treat each house as a bubble, clean regularly and be ready to isolate if necessary. The BSA Covid-Safe Charter seems sensible, and we have signed up to it.

Like many schools, we anticipated catering was going to be the biggest challenge and our solution is multi- pronged. Firstly, we will make use of other spaces; assembly halls and covered atriums will be converted into secondary dining rooms, and we will also have a takeaway sandwich “cart”.

A new menu has been developed by the catering team which is quick and easy to serve; but regrettably, this means less choice and also the removal of the salad bar and other “help-yourself” options. The size of the catering team has been increased so that we can clean tables and chairs thoroughly between each bubble; and I’m also trying to figure out how I can have bubbles within the catering team in case it becomes necessary for any of them to self-isolate.

All these things are costing money and the eventual bill will easily exceed £150,000. But these measures mean that our boarders are confident to return, we have carried on recruiting day pupils and our staff are happy to be on-site.

The downside of not doing enough far outweighs the cost. Thankfully, it feels like we are winning the battle.