Comms., Covid and Closures – winter weather warnings

Sheffield Council sends schools a reminder each year about the protocol for communicating decisions to close, either in part or whole, due to the impact of winter weather. Note – they want schools to inform them about closures, not about being open. The status quo is to be open all the days of the school year so why would we communicate that we are open?

The Council do not set a time by which a decision must be made and communicated. We might know the day before that we cannot open – perhaps a catastrophic loss of heating and forecast freezing temperatures make it impossible for a school to open. A Secondary school might get warning that public transport is closing down during the day – they need to allow children who use the bus to get home safely and so they might partly close early but with a decision made at 10:00. For us, we don’t know for sure that all or enough staff will be in school until enough staff are actually in school. They will walk in or travel only so far by car and walk the rest of the way, or use the bus, or get lifts part of the way, or have to manage their own childcare changes before arriving. We can only have 100% assurance once we have staffing on site. We are making decisions maybe five minutes before opening the school gates.

Experience and statistics tells us we can assume that we will be open, with at least a 90% likelihood:

in an average year it only snows on 3.1 days in January in Sheffield. It snows more often in February; about 3.5 days each year. Some of those days will be weekends. On average, therefore, about 3 days per winter month will be snow-effected, or 10%.

our staff have a fabulous record of managing to get to work on snow-effected days. They live close by, they leave home earlier, they get a lift in a four-by-four, they wear YakTrax (other snowshoe attachments are available), and they show commendable commitment and effort.

premises staff do a great job of making the site safe to enter and use. The Caretaker lives on site and starts work (incredibly) early when it does snow to ensure paths are clear and gritted, and that fire exits are clear.

and as an outcome we haven’t needed to close in the last fourteen years because of ‘adverse weather’.

We do not, therefore, report that we are open, because parents and staff and pupils should assume that we will be open – we will announce through every media available should we have to close at some point, but not otherwise.

How does this relate to the Covid-19 pandemic?

The Omicron variant has already had the impact on staffing that you’d expect; in the first week of spring term we had 12 salaried staff and 2 agency staff unavailable for work (plus 2 teachers on maternity leave). 10 of these absences had a Covid-19-related background. That’s 12 staff out of 58 – more than 20% of the staff off, and about 17% due to Covid-19.

We used Supply staff, we dropped some provision, cancelled some regular practice, ran with higher pupil / staff ratios at times, worked different roles, and put in some overtime. We managed to stay open for every pupil and with them in their normal classes.

We are warned to expect higher rates of infection still, and despite the shortened isolation period higher rates of staff absence. But we expect to stay open every day, unless we can’t fully open. In which case, it makes sense for us to tell parents we are shut or shutting only when we actually have to make that choice.

By good planning, good resourcing, prioritised expenditure, staff integrity, good hygiene, thorough risk assessment and control measure implementation, and a good slice of luck, we have been open every day during the pandemic. We very much hope to open every day this term as well, but pressures may compound to make that impossible.

We won’t know, however, until we know, and that may be very last minute. We will use the resources we can to stay open. We will move classes to make use of the open plan spaces. We will utilise ‘spare staffing’ to run classes rather than interventions and booster groups. We will engage every supply teacher we can get. We will pay overtime to gain extra hours of staffing. We will consider employing more staff on contract. But, if we cannot secure enough staff to open safely, we might have to close for some pupils at some points.

I don’t know when that might be, and so I cannot communicate this to parents ahead of time. What we will do is communicate it if and when it happens. Until then, let’s all assume we are open, as usual.

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