Coronavirus: what steps should UK independent schools be taking with half-term next week?

11 February 2020

Almost 15,000 Chinese pupils in UK independent schools – 27% of all overseas pupils

Many Chinese pupils at UK independent schools are set to go home to mainland China or Hong Kong for February half-term at the end of this week – schools break up on February 14. Given China’s Coronavirus outbreak, Wilsons, a leading law firm advising independent schools, says that there are six things all independent schools should be doing ahead of the holiday.

1. Talk to students and families about whether it’s necessary to go back to China

Wilsons says that while many Chinese pupils and their families will have been planning for a reunion in China during the half-term week, it’s important that schools discuss this with them to ensure they understand the risks. China has introduced exit screening at airports, and is refusing to let people with symptoms leave the country. Schools should make sure families understand that their children risk being quarantined, either in China or in the UK, for a period of weeks if they contact Coronavirus.

2. If Chinese pupils stay in the UK, ensure they have guardianship arrangements in place

Chinese pupils at independent schools are required to have legal guardians in the UK – generally family members or friends of their parents. These individuals may not be available to take care of them if they are forced to cancel a trip back to China. If that is the case, schools must ensure that alternative arrangements are made. Bodies like AEGIS (the Association for the Education and Guardianship of International Students) can help to make sure overseas students have an appropriate temporary guardian if necessary.

3. Consider keeping your boarding house open and staffed during the holiday

If a number of Chinese pupils are unable to return to China as planned during the half-term holiday, schools should consider whether they should keep their boarding houses open and staffed. This is likely to be less of an administrative burden than arranging alternative guardianship for a large number of pupils at very short notice.

4. Have a staff member at the school responsible for communicating with pupils and families

Even if the school and boarding facilities are closed during the holiday, it is important that the school remains in contact with pupils and their families as the Coronavirus situation develops. Pupils and their parents in China are likely to have urgent questions and the schools may need to contact them if mainland China, Hong Kong, the UK or the EU change their approaches to travel and quarantine.

5. If students do travel to China, ensure medical staff at the school are trained to spot Coronavirus symptoms

For some pupils, travel to China may be unavoidable. Schools must ensure that their medical staff are trained to spot Coronavirus symptoms, as well as the correct protocol for handling a suspected Coronavirus infection. Even if no pupils are travelling to China, this is still good practice.

6. Ensure children can still study if they have to enter quarantine

With A-level exams just three months away, schools must ensure they have a plan for pupils to continue their studies even if they are quarantined. Quarantine for Coronavirus lasts two weeks and schools must have a way to get lessons and homework to these students in a worst-case scenario.

Vicky Wilson, Senior Associate in the Education practice at Wilsons, says: “Pupils from China and Hong Kong make up the biggest single group of overseas student in the UK’s independent schools. Coronavirus is something every school must address this week.”

“The Foreign Office has advised people in the UK to avoid all but essential travel to China and independent schools must reinforce that to pupils and their families.”

“Missing a family reunion is hard on everyone but it is preferable to pupils risking their education being seriously disrupted by Coronavirus and its fallout.”

Yasemin Wigglesworth, CEO at AEGIS, adds: “Our thoughts are with all the students and families affected by the coronavirus outbreak. AEGIS accredited guardians are working hard to accommodate extra students in homestays during half-term, and Easter if necessary.”

“Some guardianship organisations are also offering residential activity programmes during the holidays due to the extra demand in accommodation. However, guardians are unfortunately unable to provide quarantine for students returning from affected areas.”

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