How online payment tech can help keep schools safe during mealtimes

Mike Stead, managing director of cashless solutions at Civica, believes customisable payment tech could help minimise health risks in schools

Uncertainty has impacted all of us throughout the pandemic. For parents, extended school closures have added concerns over the detrimental impact on pupil progress and wellbeing. Parents want to be reassured that their children will be safe on their return to school.

One thing that’s certain is that when the majority of pupils return, the school environment will need to adapt to minimise health risks. Social distancing challenges are some of the biggest obstacles schools must overcome – not only in the classroom, but in communal areas, such as the dining hall.

The Department for Education’s (DfE) guidance states that schools should stagger or extend lunch breaks to minimise traffic in the canteen, with additional cleaning between servings and the recommendation that lunch is brought to classrooms or elsewhere if this isn’t possible. If they’re not doing so already, schools must look for digital processes that support this approach.

Technology has improved people’s lockdown lives, keeping us safe and connected – supporting vital services and, in many cases, enabling remote teaching and learning. When schools open more fully, cloud technologies such as cashless payment and pre-order systems will be key to reducing risk to both pupils and staff.

The risks around germs and cash are well known and pupils and staff will need to be extra vigilant when handling money. Cashless, contactless payments are a wise choice in the current climate, allowing parents to remotely pay for items and top up balances, reducing the amount of cash on school grounds – and therefore reducing the risk of infection.

Of course, cashless payments aren’t new; the latest statistics from industry association, UK Finance, reveal that cash usage in Britain has fallen to an all-time low. Developments in payment technology, and the growing popularity of alternative methods have meant that just 23% of all payments were made by cash in 2019. The impact of the pandemic is sure to see this trend increase. Schools will be expected to consider the benefits of cashless payment technology before they re-open, especially in places such as the canteen.

Improving efficiency and reducing risk in the canteen

The canteen is a high traffic area of any school, as pupils from all year groups spend time queueing and eating together. With social distancing key to minimising the spread of the virus, reducing these queues and limiting the numbers of pupils eating in the canteen can help.

Cashless catering technologies often don’t just include payment software, but many allow pupils to pre-order food in advance. This not only helps to reduce queues, but can make the kitchen more efficient – vital when the normal processes are difficult to uphold. Pupils can select their meals in advance and specify a ‘delivery location’, which can help greatly if social distancing guidance means that different groups of pupils need to eat in different locations around the school. With pre-order processes, kitchens prepare only the food that’s needed, reducing waste and streamlining food service – even if the school is providing a much smaller menu.

Additionally, online payment portals allow parents to manage their child’s balance remotely, removing the need for the pupil to handle cash and use shared machines. It’s important, with today’s uncertainty, to choose a system which settles funds immediately, allowing you to quickly respond to payment and refund queries: not only for meals but also trips and other extra-curricular activities.

Many schools currently operate a biometric fingerprint identification process for security. To maintain safety, these would need thorough cleaning between each use, which may be impractical. Contactless payments using personal swipe cards and pre-ordering allow pupils to pay for their meals without touching hardware.

Aside from reducing risk of spreading the virus by minimising contact in the canteen, cashless catering systems hold information about pupils’ allergies, preventing allergens being inadvertently supplied. With different and unusual lunchtime arrangements and limited menus, there’s a risk that this could be overlooked if such a system is not in place.

Looking longer-term, the cloud-based nature of the technology means that it can be easily customised to meet changing demands, with payment options that meet the individual school’s budget and preferences. Guidance is still changing and it’s difficult for schools to plan long-term at the moment. While we’re unsure about how school life will look when all pupils return, or when normal catering service will resume, a cloud-based cashless catering system will provide schools with agility in case their menu or processes need to change quickly, and offer efficiency benefits that will last long after lockdown.

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