Updated: 14 February 2020

We have been watching the development of the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak in Asia very closely and are concerned and sympathise with all those who find themselves affected and restricted in their movements.

We have gathered information from the World Health Organisation (WHO), the British Foreign Office, Public Health England, the Boarding Schools’ Association (BSA) and consulted our local surgery about the spread of the virus. Current thinking is that the virus can be transmitted from person to person before any signs of infection are evident. Therefore the only way in which we can protect our pupils, staff and community is by reducing the risk of transmission from people who have a high likelihood of coming into contact with the virus.

It is important that we remain informed about the virus and I want you to know that we are doing everything we can do to keep everyone safe. There is a limit to what we can do and we are doing all that is reasonable. We are working within the bounds of what we are legally entitled to do and cannot prevent a parent from arranging for a child to travel to a high-risk area. We can, however, insist upon quarantine upon return. Currently, the UK has 10 cases.

High-risk areas are currently defined as: China, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia and Taiwan.

The Boarding Schools Association have advised that it is highly likely that travel restrictions will still be in place after half-term, given the scope and duration of previous epidemics. We will make a decision after half-term about pupils travelling home at Easter but would like to advise strongly against making plans to return to high-risk areas and this may also include areas that are not presently restricted.

The School has taken the following action:

  • We have advised Staff not to travel to high-risk areas, and we have cancelled any visits, including parents and recruitment agents, from high-risk areas.
  • Pupils have been advised not to travel to high-risk areas during half-term and the Easter holidays. We recommend that they should remain in Britain. We are aware that Guardians may be unwilling or unable to accommodate pupils for this period of quarantine and that the School is unable to make such arrangements.
  • Adults or pupils who do travel to a high-risk area must advise the Head by e-mail on head@ackworthschool.com. They will not be allowed to enter the School or come into contact with members of the community for 14 days after arriving in Britain.
  • We continue to insist on good infection control habits and are asking everyone to take simple, common-sense steps to prevent the spread of illnesses. It is important to introduce a culture of cleanliness and good health long before the possibility of infection. Washing hands regularly with soap and water and using tissues can help reduce the spread of infection.
  • We have introduced signage about the school advising everyone to wash their hands thoroughly and regularly and to sneeze or cough into a tissue and then bin it and not to use a handkerchief. Hand sanitisers have been placed about the school.

In taking these steps, we are making the safety of all members of our School and local communities our over-riding priority.  We recognise that these measures may be inconvenient to some families, pupils and staff and we deeply regret this, if this is the case.  We hope you will understand the urgent necessity of our decision.

We acknowledge that this does not protect our community from all risks because pupils, staff and members of the local community may still encounter another person who has returned from a high-risk area.  It follows that we ask you to consider your own travel itineraries and those of friends and family members who may travel to high-risk areas and that you take steps to prevent their interaction with staff and pupils who will return to the School. We discourage families and staff from visiting high-risk areas until the situation is clearer.  If a visit cannot be avoided they should not return to Ackworth School until the necessary quarantine period has been completed. We hope that a combination of travel constraints, swift isolation of carriers and medical intervention will minimise the effects of the virus and its spread.

Further advice is available from the Boarding Schools Association (BSA) and we will provide you with further updates as we receive them.

1. Is there any change to the advice given?

  • Schools must ensure that appropriate arrangements are in place for any pupils who need accommodation over the forthcoming half-term break, either with guardians or by keeping school facilities open.
  • Schools must assess the risk of any visits by parents and guardians taking any appropriate action and briefing relevant staff as fully as possible. Similar measures must be put in place for any proposed visits by prospective parents, pupils and agents. Schools must consider the impact on those affected when deciding on postponing or cancelling visits, but the safety of the school community must always be the primary concern.
  • Whereas schools can put in place reasonable measures to protect the school community, but we do not have the right to stop parents and guardians taking their children out of school.
  • Any restrictions imposed by us must be clearly planned and communicated, and must relate to the travel and risk profile of those concerned. We must avoid placing unnecessary restrictions on people who are clearly beyond the incubation period, which is currently 14 days.
  • We must proactively plan ahead for Easter. It is highly likely that matters will be very different then. The risk from the virus might have completely abated, or the list of countries where travel is not advised might have increased considerably. We must expect that pupils living in South East Asia might not be able to travel and must also consider that some other countries might also be affected. Anyone choosing to travel should be advised that restrictions could well be in place before they return.
  • We must actively support all those whose plans have been compromised by the current situation, and be particularly aware of the impact of enforced separation on boarders and their families. We need to have appropriate conversations with parents and pupils about their plans so that the best advice can be given to each individual family.
  • We must ensure that all boarders are protected both in school and outside school. There have been isolated reports of children being targeted outside school on the basis of their ethnicity, and a perceived link to the virus. Reasonable steps will be put in place to ensure boarders are protected when outside school, which includes expecting them not to leave school on their own. We will also take robust measures to respond to any associated bullying within school.

2. How has the situation developed?

The Health Secretary has now put powers into place which would allow for individuals to be kept in “supported isolation” if necessary, and has described the virus as a “serious and imminent threat” to the UK.  However, the UK risk level remains moderate, and it has become clear that these powers are specifically designed to respond to a situation with those who have been repatriated.  The powers will, however, also allow a speedy response should the virus spread more widely within the UK.

3. How widespread is the outbreak?

There are now over 6,358 confirmed cases and over 1,370 deaths, (13/02/20) with the virus still concentrated on Hubei Province in China. The number of reported cases has stabilised, but it is too early to say if this trend will continue. The number of cases in the UK has increased, with the most recent cases coming from Singapore. This demonstrates that the risk profile of the virus is changing dynamically, and school responses must do the same.

4. How has travel been affected?

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) continues to advise against all travel to Hubei Province and all but essential travel to mainland China. This advice does not yet extend to Hong Kong, Macao, and other countries in the region, but several countries have put additional screening measures and restrictions in place. FCO travel advice for all countries can be found here. The advice makes it clear that anyone travelling to certain countries in South-East Asia must be prepared for additional control measures and for the fact that travel is being curtailed or disrupted because of airline cancellations, particularly to and from Hong Kong. The picture is changing dynamically, so schools are advised to check FCO advice for any relevant information. Those returning from the following countries and becoming symptomatic are asked to self-isolate and to contact 111: • Thailand • Japan • Republic of Korea • Hong Kong • Taiwan • Singapore • Malaysia • Macau.

5. What about pupils who travel overseas and then return to school?

If a parent or guardian decides that their child still needs to travel, schools must make it clear that anyone returning from China will be required to spend a period of 14 days in the UK before returning to school, and should self-isolate during this time. BSA continues to advise similar action for Hong Kong, and it is very possible that this will need to be extended to other countries in the South-East Asia region. Guardians are highly unlikely to be able to offer guardianship under such circumstances.

Schools have a right to take reasonable measures to protect their staff and pupils and can advise pupils not to leave and advise those from overseas not to visit, but schools do not have the right to prevent any parent from collecting their child if they wish to do so. If a parent visits their child for the whole Easter holiday and has displayed no symptoms before the end of the holiday, current health protection guidance indicates that such a person is beyond the incubation period and does not represent a risk. It would not be reasonable, therefore, to impose additional restrictions at that point without good cause.

6. Possible Arrangements for Easter?

BSA is awaiting specific government advice regarding any school which might come close to the 295-day limit for accommodating children before needing to register as a Children’s Home and/or a private foster care arrangement if caring for pupils for more than 14 days during the holidays. BSA advises that schools must ensure that appropriate risk-assessments and supervision arrangements are in place.  If any staff are undertaking duties which are outside their normal remit they should be suitably briefed and trained. If we need to charge for providing such facilities, this will be reasonable and on a proportionate basis and we will communicate clearly in advance. Where possible a suitable programme of activities will be put in place to address the boarders’ needs and we will consider the impact on any staff who are required or volunteer to undertake additional duties.

7. What should we be doing medically?

We are continuing to monitor advice from Public Health England, Health Protection Scotland and Public Health Wales, as well as other organisations, including MOSA (Medical Officers of Schools Association), and the BSA has written to Public Health England and to the Health Secretary. While there have been no cases as yet at BSA member schools, the rise in UK cases means it is now prudent for us to ensure that we are making plans for the possibility of the virus appearing on site.

We are continuing to insist on good infection control habits, as would always be the case, particularly during the winter flu season and are asking everyone to take simple, common-sense steps to prevent the spread of illnesses. It is important to introduce a culture of cleanliness and good health long before the possibility of infection. Washing your hands regularly with soap and water and using tissues can help reduce the spread of infection.  We have introduced signage about the school advising everyone to wash their hands thoroughly and regularly and to sneeze or cough into a tissue and then bin it and not to use a handkerchief. Hand sanitisers have been placed about the school and we have reviewed our practices and policies. We are introducing a new infectious diseases policy to help if the national situation worsens but it is always advisable to avoid close contact with people who are sick.

There are some links below which I can recommend  to follow the progress of the virus:

The last two links are constantly updated and we have made good use of the information. Public Health England is leading on control measures and is using their established systems for similar situations. We are monitoring the situation and following all the advice but you can read this information for yourself on the Public Health England.

Anton Maree
Head