Keeping schools safe and clean
Disruptions to supply chains and the push for increased hand hygiene and cleaning measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 presented distinct challenges for the Education System prior to students being encouraged to learn from home.
Detailed guidance from the AHPPC in April was required to be fully met before the full return of students to face-to-face learning in May 2020. The success of returning students to school was largely based on parent confidence that schools would be clean and safe places for their children. The department has worked closely with NSW Health and the Australian Government to ensure the best possible measures are in place to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of students and staff in our public schools.
Health and safety – What was done?
The department worked to ensure schools were a safe place throughout COVID-19 by:
- working in collaboration with other agencies, particularly through the State Emergency Operations Centre (SEOC)
- providing infection control procedures and support to schools and staff
- supporting schools in preventing the transmission of COVID-19 in their school community as well as responding to specific incidents of COVID-19
- supporting the health, safety and wellbeing of staff, in particular, vulnerable staff
- supported health, safety and wellbeing of students, including students with disability and those students attending boarding schools.
Collaboration across multiple tiers of government
The department worked in partnership with NSW Government and Australian Government agencies to deliver a coordinated public health response. At the national level, the department was represented on the Education and Employment Sector Pandemic Preparedness Committee, where it was able to share information and resources, influencing the development of resources at the national level. Pandemic planning and response sessions were later undertaken with the Commonwealth Department of Education Skills and Employment.
Policies and procedures were developed and revised in line with advice from NSW Health and the AHPPC, including protocols for responding to confirmed cases of COVID-19, infection control and hygiene, cleaning of schools and physical distancing.
Education liaison officers were activated within the SEOC to provide daily situation reports on affected government and non-government schools, ECE services and TAFE sites informing the whole of government situation report.
The department engaged in multi-agency collaboration to resolve a number of complex issues. For example:
- continuity of education and access of teaching staff to and from rural and remote areas during COVID-19 restrictions (Police/Health/Education)
- the use and application of alternate and suitable hygiene and PPE items in an educational setting, including the successful negotiation with NSW Health for 100,000 masks to support the return to face-to-face learning (Health/Education)
- collaboration with Transport NSW to manage public transport arrangements for school students during the return to face-to-face learning (Health/Transport NSW).
Infection control procedures and the implementation of AHPPC and NSW Health advice
The department led the health and safety response across the education portfolio. Advice, guidance and resources developed by the department to support compliance with AHPPC and NSW Health advice were shared with the non-government schools and ECE sectors, ensuring a consistent approach across NSW.
The department had infection control policies, procedures and resources in place prior to the COVID-19 pandemic which provided guidance on a planned and managed approach to infection control practices in schools and workplaces. As community transmission of COVID-19 increased, these resources were adapted to reflect new and enhanced practical guidance on infection control.
This also included the reinforcing the importance of regular hygiene measures, such as hand hygiene, through the provision of posters and other communications to schools to use for their staff and students.
Procedures for responding to suspected and confirmed COVID-19 cases
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a specific Confirmed Case Protocol was developed in consultation with NSW Health. This protocol leveraged systems and processes already in place to notify and respond to incidents and emergency events and to temporarily cease operations in a school or workplace. The protocol outlines the process by which the department works with NSW Health in response to a confirmed case, including contact tracing and notification of close contacts, communication with parents and the wider community and the requirements for environmental cleaning prior to the school resuming onsite learning.
The Confirmed Case Protocol was in place prior to the first confirmed case in an NSW government school, which meant a timely coordinated response and seamless support to the school and its community with minimal disruption.
Incident notification and response mechanisms
The department’s Incident Report and Support Hotline service provides support and advice to schools and workplaces on responding to and reporting incidents in line with incident notification and response procedures. A separate public inquiries line was established in EDConnect to manage parent, carer and community contacts. As detailed below, throughout the response the volume of calls received increased significantly.
Staff health and wellbeing
Throughout the response, the department supported vulnerable staff to work from home, in line with the advice of the AHPPC. The AHPPC identified the following vulnerable populations at risk of serious illness if infected with COVID-19:
- people aged 70 years and over
- people aged 65 years and over with chronic medical conditions
- all people with compromised immune systems
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people over the age of 50 with chronic medical conditions.
The department does not hold centralised information to estimate the number of staff that may fall into the categories of vulnerability defined by the AHPPC and may therefore need to take advantage of remote working arrangements. As such, workforce supply was identified as a potential issue, although the department remained confident that it could maintain continuity of education even if absenteeism was to reach up to 20%. The staffing mix at individual schools varies and therefore some schools, particularly in regional areas may have a higher percentage of their workforce identified as at increased risk. The department developed a number of mitigation strategies and support mechanisms, including:
1. Casual staff support package
The department implemented a support program to provide all casual staff who were engaged for a minimum of 10 days in Term 1, at least 2 days a week work throughout Term 2. In addition, staff with temporary engagements that were due to end had their engagements extended through Term 2. Principals were also able to engage casuals as needed for their specific school context. There is a significant casual workforce to support absenteeism in schools and as at 30 June 2020, 7,122 casual staff were working across the state.
2. Workforce planning
A range of contingency plans were developed in the event of higher rates of absenteeism or circumstances in which a significant portion of the casual workforce was unable to work in schools. This planning sought to leverage existing support mechanisms and staffing strategies. This also included consideration of how the department could utilise existing appropriate workforces with working with children checks to support school operations.
Importantly, this planning included consideration of the managed return of staff back to school sites in line with the managed return to school policy. Clear documentation was distributed to staff and published on the intranet to inform staff of the department policies for returning to work in schools, including available leave provisions.
3. Workforce support and wellbeing
A website consolidating resources to support staff wellbeing was launched. It includes guides to working remotely, information on physical and psychological self-care, tools for staying connected to managers and colleagues and information for staff who may be particularly vulnerable to the risks of COVID-19.
The Being Well Program website, launched in October 2019, which consolidates a range of resources to support staff wellbeing, was updated with resources on remote learning and leadership. The Employee Assistance Program – Supporting You was also expanded to support casual staff.
The particular burden on many staff of dealing with multiple emergencies back to back, or even concurrently, highlighted the need for strong employee wellbeing programs, as well as mechanisms to relieve staff and work areas appropriately. A capacity to rapidly deploy staff to key functions was demonstrated in the response, however further work should be undertaken to ensure that surge staffing is available to support business-critical areas.
Ongoing work of the department to ensure a single source of truth human resources system and strategic workforce planning will assist in supporting the department’s future staffing arrangements.
Students with disability
Throughout the pandemic response, the department has remained committed to delivering an inclusive Education System that meets the needs of all students.
In line with advice from NSW Health, the department continued to provide a high level of care to students with disability or high health needs, in accordance with the schools’ operating practices. Standard precautions for hygiene and infection control were in place and a specific Infection Control Practical Guide for Schools for Specific Purposes (SSPs) was developed.
To support students with additional health needs and to ensure the safety of school staff at the commencement of the managed return to school, over 700 deliveries of personal protective equipment (PPE) were distributed to all SSPs and mainstream schools with support classes.
Students in boarding schools
A specific response strategy was developed for department schools with boarding facilities to support the health and safety of staff and students during the managed return to school. The department engaged an external risk management professional to work with schools to complete a risk assessment to determine whether it was safe for boarding students to return, as well as protocols to manage a confirmed case of COVID-19 in a boarding facility. The risk assessments, and the AHPPC advice, informed the development of guidelines to support the return to face-to-face learning. The guidelines were shared with the non-government schools sector to ensure a consistent approach across the Education System.
Health and safety – What was the impact?
The health, safety and wellbeing measures the department rapidly developed and implemented enabled schools to remain open and operational for parents and carers who needed their children to attend throughout the COVID-19 response.
Targeted advice, guidance and resources were developed and communicated to students, staff and parents at each stage of the response, including on:
- the managed return to school
- the return to full time face-to-face learning and resumption of school activities
- implementation of AHPPC advice in schools
- physical distancing for staff
- staff returning to work
- community and visitor guidelines.
Teachers and school staff were well-supported to implement new measures at each stage of the response and to seek advice to manage new and emerging issues if they arose.
The design of the managed return to school policy included the phased return of students to full-time face-to-face learning, recognising that staff and community confidence would determine the success of the return. The high attendance rates following the return to full-time face-to-face learning demonstrate the high-level confidence the community had in their schools as safe learning and working environments. As at 2 July, student average attendance was 86%, 63% of vulnerable staff were onsite, and 7033 casual teachers were working across the state.
Despite this, there has been a high level of public scrutiny for each individual case of COVID-19 that has impacted school communities. This highlights how critical each individual school is to instilling confidence in the Education System as a whole.
A report into COVID-19 in NSW schools prepared by the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS) highlights the limited spread of COVID-19 within NSW schools.
Health and safety – What should be kept or changed as a result?
The response to COVID-19 has highlighted that the pre-existing health and safety systems were capable of adapting and responding to this particular emergency. It has also highlighted the importance of individual school compliance with centrally provided frameworks, such as infection control procedures in the response. Supporting schools to maintain best-practice with appropriate central accountability measures will further improve responsiveness to future emergencies, as well as supporting business as usual operations.
Incidents such as COVID-19, have an immense impact on business operations that are providing front-line support. It is recommended that the department explore options of creating a pool of staff from across the department that can be readily deployed during critical times to support essential areas of the business. This should include systems to support a clear line of sight of staffing capacity across the entire department.
With the intense focus on hygiene and infection control measures to keep schools healthy and to prevent the spread of COVID-19, there is a greater level of understanding and application of infection control measures in our school environments. There is a new level of understanding of the importance of hygiene and infection control practices as a means of creating safe working and learning environments which will remain ongoing beyond the response to COVID-19. However, to ensure an ongoing and sustained application, targeted support, training and clear information will be required to support staff and students to maintain best practice.
Following established procedures was critical not only to health and safety, but for confidence in the Education System as a whole. Appropriate oversight and accountability measures should reinforce compliance with critical procedures, as well as promote system confidence.
Cleaning and hygiene supplies – What was done?
Cleaning was one element in a suite of measures the department put in place to ensure NSW schools are safe, clean and secure places for students and staff. Schools are professionally cleaned each day under a whole of government cleaning contract. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the department implemented additional cleaning processes.
The implementation of additional infection control and hygiene measures in early 2020 led to a significant increase in global demand for hygiene products, including toilet paper, soap, hand sanitiser, disinfectant and PPE. In March 2020, the department received significant advice from schools and the ECE sector that they were unable to purchase hygiene supplies due to limited stock or maximum buying limits.
The department stepped in early to reinforce the supply chain by establishing a whole of system end-to-end response to procure and distribute hygiene supplies to schools. As the department has purchasing power in the market, a portfolio-wide supply chain approach was implemented to address the supply chain risks. The department exceeded its responsibilities under the Pandemic Plan, identifying and managing risks across the Education System and beyond areas of operational and legislative accountability.
In line with commitments under the Pandemic Plan, the department supported communication links with CSNSW and the AISNSW. Beyond this, the department ensured non-government schools and the ECE sector had access to hygiene supplies. Through the SEOC, the department also supported other NSW Public Sector agencies to access hygiene supplies where needed.
The department developed a prioritisation process which places a needs-based focus on the distribution of limited resources. Sites with special care needs and vulnerable children take priority.
A distribution hub was stood up at the vacant site of TAFE Chullora to manage the supply chain. Additional staff were recruited to pack supplies for delivery to schools, and this was supplemented by corporate staff who were temporarily redeployed. Supplies were distributed by Regional Asset Management teams and via Australia Post.
A process to maintain system-wide stock status is in place. Commencing Week 1, Term 2, procurement, requests, warehouse deliveries and dispatch have been managed through a single source of truth reporting system. The system records stock levels and movements for reporting purposes. A dashboard tracking system also monitors current and projected supplies. This central supply and distribution function was a completely new function stood up by the department in response to the particular supply chain challenges presented by COVID-19.
During the two-week period of remote learning at the commencement of Term 2, the School Security Unit scheduled additional security patrols to ensure that the staff and students who remained onsite were safe. Additional security patrols were also implemented at some schools following thefts of hygiene supplies.
As hygiene supplies were critical to the ongoing operations of schools, the department also implemented 24-hour security at the Glenfield and Chullora storage facilities.
Cleaning and hygiene supplies – What was the impact?
Enhanced cleaning was in place across schools in March 2020. Additional cleaning during the day, in line with AHPPC advice, was in place at all government schools to enable the managed return to school, commencing Week 3, Term 2. The success of the managed return to school was supported by the enhanced cleaning regime and the high level of workforce and community confidence it generated.
To date, there has been no recurrence of COVID-19 in the staff or student population at schools subject to specialist cleaning following a confirmed diagnosis.
There are significant costs associated with enhanced cleaning measures, as well as the specialist clean required after a confirmed case. AISNSW also noted the unexpected budget impact of cleaning costs, especially the particularly high impact of cleaning after a confirmed case.
At every stage of the response, the department took steps to proactively identify critical supply shortages and to rapidly undertake procurement and distribution, for both government and non-government schools and the ECE sector. Prior to the COVID-19 response, the department did not hold a central stockpile or system-wide record of supplies. Supplies were managed at a local school or service level. The department now has a centralised distribution centre to procure and dispatch hygiene supplies to schools.
The system response ensured that schools were equipped with the necessary hygiene supplies required to continue operations throughout Term 1 and that all schools received critical deliveries to enable the start of the managed return to school in Week 3, Term 2. The success of the managed return to school was contingent upon the robustness of the supply system, and the high level of workforce and community confidence it generated.
Cleaning and hygiene supplies – What should be kept or changed as a result?
The department is currently considering medium to long term options for an enhanced cleaning regime to support the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that broader conditions and AHPPC advice are subject to change. In all investigations, the potential for rapidly changing health advice is being considered to ensure efficiency and value for money.
To enable the continuation of the additional day cleaning in schools, options currently under consideration include:
- the re-introduction of a janitor role
- amendment to current roles and responsibilities for General Assistants
- the extension of variations to the whole of government cleaning contract.
All options require further analysis of financial, administrative and operational implications.
There are opportunities to enhance and streamline supply management and logistics in the short and long term.
With sufficient stocks of hygiene supplies now on hand and supported by a robust distribution process, the centralisation of hygiene supplies will continue throughout 2020 with minimal change to systems. The financial implications of maintaining the centralised function will require further consideration to support continued viability.
In the longer term, the department should consider the establishment of a permanent logistics and response team from the Chullora site, with the critical function of emergency preparedness and resilience. The team would also provide support functions to the department’s broader logistical requirements.
A permanent logistics and response team would support work currently being led by School Infrastructure NSW to streamline facilities management across the department. Long term success outputs would be based on:
- reduced administrative burden for school principals
- operational readiness in crisis situations
- cost savings through intelligent budgetary systems between schools and the department
- maximised use of the Chullora site for multiple purposes.
The whole of government cleaning contract allows sufficient flexibility and capacity to adjust cleaning regimes rapidly in response to changing circumstances.
To enable effective cleaning of high-touch areas such as toilet facilities, and ensure ongoing compliance with infection control and hygiene requirements, it is recommended that an assessment of assets across the portfolio be undertaken and a program of works scoped to upgrade the assets to meet statutory requirements.
The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that school level procurement is vulnerable to supply chain disruption. The department demonstrated an operational capacity to rapidly stand up critical processes in response to rapidly changing circumstances and government advice. Leveraging whole of system scale was critical to the success of the response.
The centralisation of an enabling function, such as the procurement, dispatch and monitoring of hygiene supplies, allowed schools to focus attention on the provision of continuity of education, the delivery of the managed return to school and ensuring every student is known valued and cared for.
Infection control and hygiene requirements should be clearly defined for each school community in order to inform robust supply chain planning.