Managing and monitoring COVID-19 risk: 5 lessons from the frontline

Providing school leaders with added support and new technological approaches can help to create more COVID-secure schools

The UK, at long last, is slowly emerging from lockdown. Keeping schools open is – and should be – the government’s priority, but this process is likely to be fraught with challenges. With this in mind, in August 2020 Synoptic partnered with schools across Cambridgeshire to pilot Reactivate, integrating app technology with dashboard management software to support schools in managing their COVID risk.

As users report their COVID status within the Reactivate app (i.e, symptoms or a positive test result), this information is then visible to an administrator within the secure Reactivate dashboard. The dashboard provides a clear and real-time overview that enables administrators to make swift decisions in order to minimise learning disruption and infection spread. In this article, we look at the lessons from our pilot, what it means for schools and the steps we need to take to keep the education system moving.

1. COVID monitoring in schools is here to stay

Even if the goal of keeping schools open nationally is maintained, school leaders will still need to manage localised infections. With children unlikely to be vaccinated for many months to come, headteachers face the prospect of having to manage outbreaks through the blunt tool of widespread isolation, sending home classrooms or even entire year groups. School leaders face a constantly shifting situation, and it will be critical that we equip them with the tools to effectively manage COVID risk so that pupils face minimal disruption.

2. Schools need support to deliver remote testing

 The government’s strategy for managing cCOVID in schools has been to invest heavily in remote testing, with thousands of PCR tests taking place every day. Whilst this is important, if schools are unable to effectively interpret and analyse the data they receive, then we risk undermining the whole process. Many schools neither have the infrastructure nor the capacity to interpret large amounts of testing data and they need additional support to identify the signals the data presents.  This need for greater management support was something we consistently heard from school leaders.

3. It’s not enough to just monitor infection in schools – we need to focus on wider bubbles, too

Through our Cambridgeshire pilot, what quickly became clear is that infections within individual bubbles are just as important to manage as infections within the school environment. Early data demonstrated the importance of bridging the gap between a private household and school; in our pilot, 9 out of 10 teachers were isolating not because they themselves had the virus but because a household member had been infected or potentially exposed.

The significance of wider bubble management meant we developed Reactivate so that school members could connect with their off-campus bubbles – their families, friends and wider households. These groups can then report any symptoms via the app, order tests and record results so that faster and more effective responses could be made. This approach meant that students, staff and their families were able to notify school leadership and their wider social network of any changes to their health status, ensuring that COVID-19 risk could be contained, and wider outbreaks avoided. For instance, in the Cambridgeshire pilot, antigen tests allocated through the Reactivate app prevented an outbreak on school premises by identifying a number of asymptomatic cases and stopping further infection spread.

4. Teacher absence and increased admin are a significant burden on school leaders

Another key outcome from our pilot was that managing teacher absence was one of the biggest challenges and expenses facing schools. Headteachers were having to spend more money on supply teachers and not only did COVID make it more difficult to manage staff absence and rotas, it created significant administrative burdens. However, by using the Reactivate app, they were able to better plan for and manage staff absence, saving a considerable amount of time on daily reporting. With school leaders under unprecedented pressure to maintain standards, it’s critical that we do not tie them up in administrative red tape, and instead give them the tools to cut through this and succeed.

5. Schools provide a template for the rest of the economy

Overall, the lesson from our pilot in Cambridgeshire was that school leaders need a better and clearer flow of information as well as better tools to interpret and act upon it. By providing this we can not only help keep students in the classroom, but we can learn valuable lessons for the wider economy around how we can get the country back to work. Opening schools represents the first step of our journey towards ‘normality’ and it’s important that we use this opportunity to understand what works, which tools are required and how we use these insights to chart a course towards unlocking the wider economy.

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