COVID and Communication: How the rise in infection rates may continue to cause employment issues in the Education sector

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Article

27 November, 2020

In the past week, media outlets have been reporting that almost two thirds of secondary school children had been self-isolating, up a significant increase from the week before. Similarly, it is estimated that the number of primary school children needing to self-isolate has doubled in the past week. Unfortunately, it is currently unknown how many members of staff have been required to self-isolate in previous weeks, as these have not been accounted for in the Government's figures. Whilst these numbers may give cause for concern, other outlets have been reporting absence rates at a fraction of these figures. In the absence of consistency and clarity, from the Government, Department of Education and/ or Local Authorities, we suggest schools increasingly need to focus on their absence statistics, to gage the impact COVID-19 continues to have in your school.

Without the benefit of individual data and in looking at the sector as a whole, the figures reported still do support the overall view that COVD-19 is having an increased resurgence in the Education sector, so what might this trend mean for your staff and why does it shine a spotlight on the need for communication?

Many members of staff are undoubtedly anxious about the continued threat of COVID-19 in schools. Since the country has hit a 'second wave' of infections, increasing numbers of school children have been required to self-isolate, due to potential exposures at home and in the school environment. As a consequence of this, it is likely that staff will be increasingly concerned about the measures school leaders have taken to protect their health, as they undoubtably feel vulnerable and facing an uphill battle.

This growing concern does increase the risks of employment issues developing in the Education sector. Incumbent in this, is the risk of claims being brought, where members of staff allege they have resigned due to the "serious and imminent" danger they felt to their health and safety or have been dismissed due to a concern they have raised about the health and safety of those in the school environment, a concern of this kind made in the correct way (i.e. a disclosure of the concern to a member of senior leadership, the Headteacher and/or Governors) can amount to being a protected disclosure and dismissal for making this kind of disclosure could constitute an automatic unfair dismissal under Whistleblowing legislation. Encompassed in these risks is the potential for increased time, expense and effort being expended which could be avoided and funds used for the wider benefit of the school as a whole instead.

So, what are the steps you should be employing to mitigate the effects of these growing concerns?

As the name of this article suggests, communication is key. Now more than ever, staff wide communications need to be clear, consistent, and informative for those working within your school. As part of this, school leaders should be minded to have a constant thought to the risks posed by their specific environment and seek to address the measures being taken to combat these. It is likely that those who have not, may have taken steps to put safety measures in place, but may simply not have communicated these to members of staff, leaving them feeling vulnerable and at risk.

Within the need to communicate, school leaders need to have a constant mind their statutory obligations with regards to health and safety. As many will be aware, employers have a statutory duty to inform their staff about the measures they are taking to protect their health and safety. Included in this is the need to share any risk assessments with members of staff and particularly now, and COVID specific risk assessments. Similarly, where an employer proposes changes to health and safety measures, the need to consult/ consult on a collective basis may arise. Failure to do so can aid staff in their potential claims, as a means of demonstrating there was a genuine need to feel as "serious and imminent" risk of danger and/or demonstrate that the health and safety of others was being put in danger. If school leaders are concerned about the nature of their statutory obligations and where it may arise, legal advice should be sought in the first instance.

Where concerns arise, communication is again key for addressing these, to help reduce the fears a member of staff may have in their role. By engaging in open and honest communication, the concerns of your staff are likely to reduce or be mitigated at the least. This not only reduces the chances of a future claim but increases positive relationships with staff.

Finally, school leaders would be advised to have a mind to the contingency plans they have in place, particularly where large numbers of staff are required to be absent from school. Absence places a significant amount of pressure on remaining staff, which in turn increases the likelihood of them feeling stressed at work. As a consequence, schools are then again at risk of further employee issues, such as grievances. By having a clear and communicated contingency plan in place, schools are reducing risks from the outset and will continue to manage those risks by ensuring that each member of staff feels provided for in your COVID contingency planning.

As mentioned, it is likely that many school leaders already have plans in place and are currently implementing plans to ensure the continued protection of staff. However, it is unfortunately not enough to suggest these plans are in place, where staff feel they have not been communicated to or considered. Clear, honest and consistent communication remains key for reassuring staff about the measures you are taking to protect them and mitigate the risk of future claims arising.

For more information contact Ruth Rule-Mullen in our Education department via email or phone on 01772 220195. Alternatively send any question through to Forbes Solicitors via our online Contact Form.

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