One case of Covid-19 among the staff had an immediate impact on how we could run the college, writes Sam Parrett

With great anticipation and excitement, last week saw the re-opening of all our college campuses and schools. After months of forced closure, staff have worked tirelessly over the summer break to prepare sites for the safe return of staff and students.

The risks and concerns have been uppermost in all our minds, but so has the determination to get our students back into the classroom.

All our schools and college campuses are following every Covid-19 guideline; from staggered starts to having fewer people on site, mask-wearing in communal areas and encouraging hand hygiene. Yet the reality is that we will see cases of the virus across sites as we move into the autumn and winter months.

At the end of our induction week, we had notification that one of our college staff had tested positive for Covid-19. Seeing a case so early in the term was a real wake-up call as to the reality of the virus. As ever with these things, the call came on a Sunday. This meant our senior leadership team dropping afternoon plans and jumping on a Zoom call (with one of us dialling in from a kayaking trip, complete with life jacket!).

It’s been a stark reminder that Covid-19 is with us

It was vital to ascertain not only what the situation with the affected staff member was, but the impact it would have on the wider college. Getting hold of Public Health England and the DfE proved tricky (on a Sunday afternoon) and it took some time for us to establish exactly what action we needed to take.

After some initial confusion as to who would need to self-isolate, we were advised through the NHS Test and Trace system that up to 15 staff members would need to stay at home for 14 days. Fortunately, due to the Covid-safe measures we had taken at college (social distancing, compulsory masks in all communal areas etc) no student was affected on that front.

But with a number of tutors now unable to come into college, we had no choice but to contact around 100 students and move them to our online learning platform temporarily. This is not ideal so early in the academic year, when students and tutors have not yet formed relationships with one another. But in this case, it was sadly unavoidable to reduce any risk of Covid-19 transmission.

Having gone through this experience, we now better understand the crucial processes that must be in place, particularly in relation to test and trace; ensuring we know exactly which students and tutors have been where and when they have been there. Policies have been updated and clear procedures shared among all staff, so that everyone understands what is required.

We are focusing on ensuring everyone on site continues to familiarise themselves with the guidance and follow it. The “hands, face, space” message has to be crystal clear as this is the only way we can protect ourselves and our community.

In hindsight, it’s also clear we were lucky in terms of the number of staff who came into what is deemed “close contact” with the individual who tested positive. It could easily have been more, which would have had a severe impact on the college. Managing bubbles and contact between staff and students is extremely challenging. For example, a student or staff member may be in a particular ‘curriculum bubble’ but then go into the library or the common room and end up being part of another bubble, which makes contacting and tracing more difficult. It’s also tricky trying to balance staff cover.

In total, as a result of one staff member testing positive, around 100 students and 15 staff were directly affected – having to either go home or change their timetable.

It has been a stark reminder that Covid-19 is with us. Having thought we’d prepared for every eventuality, we’ve had a reality gap as well as a reality check – which thankfully we’ve now closed.