This guidance was published at 9 am on Friday 13 March 2020 and is subject to further updates in accordance with Government and Public Health England advice.
Coronavirus (or, more specifically, Covid-19) was declared a global health emergency in January 2020 and a pandemic in March. In this note, we take a look at commonly asked questions relating to Coronavirus and how to respond to this virus in a school, based on advice currently available.
What are the Coronavirus symptoms?
The NHS guidance states that Coronavirus symptoms are:
- a cough
- difficulty breathing
- a fever
Schools should ensure that staff are aware of these symptoms (whilst also being aware that they are also symptoms of much more common illnesses, like colds and flu).
How can I reduce the risk of staff contracting Coronavirus in the workplace?
There are ways in which a school, and your staff, can make a real difference in preventing the spread of Coronavirus. These include:
- maintaining clear lines of communication with your staff, providing updates where appropriate
- ensuring staff know to whom they report any concerns regarding symptoms and how to self-isolate if appropriate
- consider your contingency plan for the school if it has to close (fairly likely and imminent at today’s date) including how to support employees who may be remote working. Remote working may be easier to consider for teaching staff; support staff may find this more difficult.
- consider how to support staff who may be in self-isolation
- placing posters and/or reminder messages around the school to remind all that the best defence against Coronavirus is to thoroughly wash your hands regularly and avoid touching your face (the Public Health England webpage has numerous useful resources which can be accessed here)
- ensuring the school has up to date employee contact and emergency contact details on record
- ensuring toilet and washing facilities have frequently replenished soap and hand sanitiser (if you have this)
- ensuring hot water is working in all washing facilities to aid with thorough hand washing
- placing anti-bacterial gels and clean tissues around the school
- ensuring waste paper bins (with used tissues), toilet facilities and communal hand touching areas such as door handles and entry pin codes are cleaned regularly
- frequently clean and disinfect individual areas in school such as desks, keyboards, mice, phones etc.
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Do I need to pay an employee sick pay if they have been advised by a GP to self-isolate?
If employees have been quarantined for 14 days in self-isolation, there is no automatic entitlement to statutory sick pay (“SSP”). However, it is beneficial for all concerned if employees take reasonable precautions by self-isolating. It is therefore advisable that employers pay sick pay (whether that is SSP or enhanced sick pay in line with school policy) to avoid the risk of the employee coming into work when they should be in quarantine.
Do I need to pay my employees full pay if I have told them not to come to work?
Yes. If you have made the decision to tell employees who are not sick and are capable of attending work in the usual way not to come into work, they should receive their usual full pay.
What do I do if an employee has travelled to a Category 1 area against Government (and school) advice?
If an employee has travelled to a country against Government advice, ideally the school should have advised staff through earlier communication not to do so and the consequences. There may, of course, be mitigating circumstances which the school will wish to consider. The employee will need to self-isolate on return and may not be paid in those circumstances. Any such travel could lead to disciplinary action, subject to any investigation.
Do I need to pay employees sick pay if they have Coronavirus and, if so, when do they become eligible for this?
Yes. If employees have been diagnosed with Coronavirus, they will be entitled to sick pay in the usual way and in accordance with school policy. Some employers are taking the pro-active step of offering all employees a block of sick pay entitlement specifically for Coronavirus absence, even if their length of service or seniority would not normally entitle them to full pay.
Whilst employees would not normally be entitled to SSP within the first three days of their sickness absence, the government has announced plans to amend this. Employees will receive SSP on day one of their sickness absence as to quote Boris Johnson; “nobody should be penalised for doing the right thing”. The government also announced, as part of the 2020/20201 budget, that smaller businesses (which includes schools) with fewer than 250 employees can reclaim the cost of paying SSP for the 14 days of isolation.
Schools who actively monitor sickness levels, for example under the Bradford Factor, may wish to consider exempting any absence related to Coronavirus from scoring and notifying employees in advance that this will apply. This may help limit employees attending work when they should not do so.
Can I insist on seeing a sick note from my employee?
A sick note (or statement of fitness for work) is not required for the first 7 calendar days of sickness absence. Thereafter, employers require a sick note from the unwell employee’s GP.
However, schools are encouraged to use their discretion regarding employees being in a position to submit sick notes. In view of the contagiousness of the Coronavirus and the advice from Public Health England not to attend GP surgeries or hospitals with suspected cases, it may be that employees simply do not have the opportunity to obtain a sick note.
In view of the potential repercussions, it would be advisable to exercise discretion and not demand sick notes to evidence either diagnosis or period of self-isolation.
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What should I do if an employee isn’t sick but needs to care for a sick or quarantined child or other dependents?
Employees are entitled to unpaid time off work to care for a dependent in an unexpected emergency.
A child or other dependent who has been diagnosed with Coronavirus, or quarantined, would clearly fall within this category.
How you pay employees in this scenario will depend upon the facts and how you wish to approach this situation.
If the employee requires time off to care for a quarantined dependent and the employee is fit and well, they would usually have unpaid time off. However, schools may wish to use their discretion and pay them sick leave in view of the fact that, if a dependent has been quarantined, the chances are the employee should be quarantined too.
If an employee is caring for a dependent who has been actually diagnosed with Coronavirus, they will need to be in self-isolation themselves and, again, it is wise for schools to exercise discretion and pay sick pay to prevent employees from seeking to attend the workplace in between caring for the dependent if they are not receiving pay.
What do I do about an employee who simply does not want to attend work, despite i) not being quarantined, ii) not being diagnosed with Coronavirus, or iii) not caring for a dependent?
Employers should listen to the employee’s concerns and fully consider them. Coronavirus is raising mental health concerns and worries for some individuals; schools may wish to refer staff to the website www.mentalhealth.org.uk if a staff member is worried. If the concerns raised are genuine, schools should consider the health and safety obligations they owe to their staff and should seek to resolve these concerns. Flexible working arrangements may come into operation here, to enable the employee to continue working whilst not needing to come into the workplace.
Where an employee’s concerns are not genuine or, after discussions, they still do not want to come into work and cannot work from home, provided they have not been told to self-isolate or diagnosed with Coronavirus, a school may wish to discuss whether the employee wishes to take the period of absence as annual leave or unpaid leave. However, it is important to note that an employer does not have to agree to this and, where an employee is unreasonably refusing to attend work, this scenario could lead to disciplinary action.
What do I do if an employee becomes unwell at school and lives on a school site?
Do not panic. Simple precautions administered with a calm, measured approach is the best course of action here.
If the unwell employee has recently returned from an area known to have been affected by this virus, they should take the following steps which could be communicated to staff in advance, so that they know how to respond in the event that they develop symptoms:
- keep at least 2 metres away from colleagues and other people;
- quarantine themselves in a room;
- avoid touching things in the school and use their own phone, where possible, to dial 111 to receive NHS advice;
- use separate toilet facilities to others; and
- cough or sneeze into tissues which go straight into a specific bin. Employees should use the crook of their elbow if they are without tissues
Even if an unwell employee has not returned from a known infected area, in view of the recently identified cases in the UK where individuals had not travelled themselves, it would be wise to exercise caution and utilise the above.
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Will I be forced to close the school if someone diagnosed with Coronavirus attends the workplace?
Whether it is an employee, pupil, parent or supplier, if someone attends the school having been diagnosed with Coronavirus, it does not necessarily mean that you must close the school.
A calm and logical approach should be taken. You should notify Public Health England and a health protection team will contact you to discuss:
- the nature of the incident
- identify those who have been in contact with the person diagnosed with Coronavirus
- undertake a comprehensive risk assessment
- advise on any precautions, actions or next steps
What if I have no choice but to close the workplace?
Schools should be prepared for this. Any plan should include:
- ensuring staff who can work at home to check, in advance, that they have fully operational laptops/PC’s and phones and can continue to work as normal from home
- consider whether to order additional laptops and mobile phones for employees who do not currently have them. Review licensing on software to ensure you have sufficient remote user permissions.
- making it clear to staff working from home, if this is not the standard arrangement, that this is a temporary measure whilst Coronavirus is an issue
Any decision in this regard will be subject to Government guidance. Although the Government may close schools to send pupils home, it may be that the support function of the school can remain open. If a school needs to close completely, it is highly likely schools will still need to pay their staff during any temporary closure. The contract of employment may address this point, although it is not a standard term.
Other considerations – cashflow
We are mindful that schools are likely to be sending out their Term 3 invoices soon, possibly when the school is closed for an uncertain period of time. Invoices might face questioning from parents when there is a charge for a service when a school is not operating as normal. This might also be impacted by schools cancelling trips which had been scheduled to take place over the Easter holiday period and parents might already feel ‘out of pocket’. A number of schools are able to teach remotely but this is not without difficulty.
Many schools operate with limited cash reserves so will need to prepare for late/non-payment of fees and possible demands for fee reductions. Staff costs will, however, be the same and amount for a significant part of the school expenditure. If a school has any other income i.e. from holiday lettings, this is also likely to be impacted with the current situation. As school cash flow is ‘termly’, this upcoming Term has to cover payments to August i.e. 5 months so cash might be very tight.
Schools should consider now how to preserve cash, they may wish to consider whether they need to amend banking facilities to provide for capital/interest payment holidays. There may also be some bank covenant resets as well. The option of delaying any unnecessary expenditure should be considered.
As an aside, any school closure may well impact on any staff consultation that is currently underway (such as in relation to the Teachers’ Pension Scheme by way of example) and specific advice should be sought.
As this is an evolving situation, the school will need to take up to date advice as the position develops.