At the start of the pandemic, Calderdale Council’s public health team recognised the importance of supporting schools. They set up a helpline for schools so they could get in touch with public health specialists for advice.
Calderdale Council’s public health team has worked closely with schools from the very start of the pandemic. This has involved the creation of a dedicated helpline for schools and close partnership work to tackle the surge in infections seen in autumn 2021.
School-based vaccination clinics have also been prioritised with follow-up clinics arranged to maximise uptake.
Helpline established close partnership with schools
At the start of the pandemic, Calderdale Council’s public health team recognised the importance of supporting schools. One of the first steps taken in spring 2020 was to set up a helpline for schools so they could get in touch with public health specialists for advice.
This was used by schools in preparation for wider opening after the first lockdown, including the introduction of one-way routes arounds school sites, the creation of bubbles and advice on ventilation.
When schools returned in September, the helpline was used to provide advice on the isolation of close contacts and when to send whole bubbles home. This local support meant that schools in Calderdale did not have to rely on national helplines, which were often reported to be overwhelmed with the volume of calls.
Public Health Consultant Ben Leaman, who has led the work on schools for the council, said: “There was so much for schools to get their head around. Lots of guidance and things to consider that they have not had to do previously.
Our schools received a 24/7 timely response from professionals who knew them and understood their circumstances and were able to provide a personalised offer of support.
“Schools did a fantastic job and quickly learned what needed to be done. Within a few months, schools were making decisions themselves and just ringing in to double-check. The helpline has the added benefit of fostering a really close relationship with public health.”
Coping with the autumn 2021 surge in cases
The work has been guided by the Safe Education Group, which includes public health, the council’s education department and headteachers from a selection of primary and secondary schools as well as representative from colleges and early years providers.
It has been meeting regularly for the past year, helping to co-produce guidance and interventions in schools. It has proved to be particularly crucial since September 2021 when schools went back for the first time following the lifting of most national restrictions.
Mr Leaman said: “It has been difficult for schools. We’ve gone from having quite a few measures in place to very little. I think among our schools there has been a view that it has been too few. When schools returned we saw cases go up very quickly in pupils – in secondaries and also primaries. That then translated to more cases in the community and in older age groups, who of course are the ones most at risk of hospitalisation.
“In the end we got to a point where pressures on the health and care system, and the number of children missing school because they had COVID-19, led us to decide to go beyond the national guidance. We have said schools are allowed to re-introduce face-coverings in classrooms. We’ve left it up to schools individually to decide if they want to do that, but what the additional local advice gave is public health cover for them to do so.
“We also wrote to parents asking them to consider keeping children at home if there is COVID-19 in the household. We suggested they took a PCR around day three to five and if that was negative to return to school. We could not insist on it because of the national guidance, but we asked families to consider whether they would want their child sitting next to someone whose family members were positive.
“It seems to have had an impact. Cases have come down more quickly than elsewhere – at one point we had one of the highest rates in the country.”
On top of this, there has been some one-off support for individual schools. A mobile PCR testing centre was organised for one secondary school that saw rapid spread of COVID-19 – half the school tested positive at one point in the space of just 14 days.
The education sector and public health team also contributed to the creation of a support service for voluntary and public sector workers. Calderdale Cares 4 U, which is hosted by Healthy Minds, is a directory of wellbeing services that are available free to workers, recognising the impact the pandemic has had on them. They include access to physios, massage therapy, yoga, dance classes and mindfulness clinics.
Prioritising school-based vaccination
The past few months have, of course, involved a focus on vaccination too. The programme has been delivered by the school immunisation service, which is run by the local NHS trust rather than school nursing service. They involved a pharmacy team in delivering the vaccinations, but the school nursing service helped by reviewing and checking the consent forms.
With the agreement of the Safe Education Group, it was decided that each secondary school would get two visits from the COVID-19 vaccination team. Given there were such high infection rates in pupils it was recognised that there would be significant numbers of children who would not be able to be vaccinated during the first visit given the need to wait 28 days after infection before being vaccinated.
Mr Leaman said: “I know others areas have started using some of their community vaccination centres, but in Calderdale we don’t have a mass vaccination clinic – we are using our GP hubs and community pharmacies and we wanted to protect capacity in those to deliver the booster programme so we decided we would do the follow-up clinics in schools.
“We also felt it would offer us the best chance of getting the best uptake. After all the school immunisation service has a huge amount of knowledge and skill in terms of delivering vaccination to children. We will be using our GP hubs to get our home-educated children vaccinated and will in time open them up to other pupils when the second visits have been completed.”
The school nursing service has also helped support the rollout of rapid testing in schools when pupils returned in March and again in September. “There were huge pressures on schools and the colleges in particular and some just needed some extra support. That’s been our approach all the way through – working alongside schools to manage the risk and keep children safe and in the classroom as much as possible,” added Mr Leaman.
The support provided has hugely welcomed by schools. Dr Chris Lingard, Headteacher at Ravenscliffe School, said: “The efficient and effective responsiveness of the public health team was invaluable. On one day we had to report four separate situations and their patience, support and advice was exemplary. I genuinely don’t think we could have got through these tough times without them.”
Anthony Guise, Headteacher at the Calder Learning Trust, added: “The close working relationship has been key for schools navigating their way through the challenges of the varying stages of the pandemic. Weekly meetings, relevant and timely information and the reassurance that a public health consultant was on the end of the phone 24/7 has ensured that COVID-19 responses have been implemented in a timely, manageable and effective way.”
Public Health Consultant