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School Business Managers in Covid-19 – Unpredictable and challenging times

March 10, 2021, 16:36 GMT+1
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  • Caroline Collins reflects on the pressures Covid-19 has had on SBMs...
School Business Managers in Covid-19 – Unpredictable and challenging times

One year ago the most pressing concerns for school business managers around the country was that of reduced budgets coupled with higher spend on teaching staff.

We would tear our hair out looking at the figures and wondering what learning resource would need to be cut in order to facilitate the teacher pay rises. Fast forward one year and our concerns are more deeply rooted and much more serious.

Back at the end of March 2020, when the Government announced that schools were to close to all but the most vulnerable children, SBMs had to work hard and fast to get things into place.

Suddenly the woes of financial pressures were taken over by the woes of health and safety.

Almost overnight we found ourselves working flat out getting Covid-19 risk assessments in place, identifying the most suitable sanitisers and anti-bac liquids, organising deep cleans, managing shielding staff and those self-isolating and reorganising school to ensure pupils were safe at all times.

Covid-19 solutions in schools

Then there was the fiasco of the school meals vouchers where it was incredibly difficult to get on to the website with many of us only managing to get them by logging on at 10pm.

The ever-changing guidance from the Government and the DfE was confusing, to say the least, but we had to work with it; we had to find solutions and work to the guidelines, frequently making our own judgment about its meaning.

The summer break couldn’t come soon enough for a lot of us. SBMs had worked flat out, making the school safe, while juggling their own workload. Twitter timelines were full of SBMs talking about how exhausting they were finding it and how challenging the year was proving.

When the autumn term started and all children returned to school many of us felt that, at long last, we could return to a sense of normality. The challenges that we had faced earlier in the year were now ones that we were more equipped to deal with.

Our supplies were fully stocked, we knew which staff members were most at risk, how to manage a child with symptoms, we had an isolation room and cupboards full to the brim of hand sanitisers, soaps, anti-bac, PPE and the all-important Covid-19 tests.

We had laptops in place for children who might need to go into isolation and our remote learning was up and ready to go. The first half term was smooth and we started to, perhaps prematurely, relax.

School lockdown and unpredictable government guidance

Then came January 2021, and the pandemic has worsened with the new strain leading to more staff absences. Government told schools they were to re-open and then, at 8pm the night before spring term was due to start, they did another U-Turn and schools had to close for all pupils except vulnerable and those of key workers.

Once again, we were placed in the forefront of managing unpredictable and serious challenges. Spring term started with more vulnerable children and key workers than in the previous lockdown.

The school phone rang continuously on day one, with parents complaining that they could not access the remote learning. It was a difficult day, but we got through it by assigning remote learning issues to a member of staff. She worked through the list of names throughout the day, calling and talking through the difficulties.

We found, quite quickly, that the problems they were facing were, most often, caused by the type of device they were using. While there were simple fixes to these, it would have been good for the parents and teachers to have been told about device restrictions so that we could plan for these issues and prepare for them.

At least we now have an individual who has learned a lot more about Google Classroom and is usually able to answer the queries in case of a prolonged lockdown.

By the end of day one school staff were exhausted and, having dealt with continuous phone calls the previous day, we contacted parents and asked them to avoid calling in unless there was an emergency.

We suggested queries were sent in via email or through the school texting service and, on receipt, we could forward them to the dedicated remote learning teacher, minimising disruption.

Remote learning

In the school at which I work a high number of families have several siblings, so we have received many calls and emails from parents asking for help with laptops. Having several siblings at home, all trying to access live classroom sessions at the same time, was proving impossible.

Although we did not have a perfect solution we decided to record all of the remote lessons so that children could access them at different times and, although it’s not ideal because there is no interaction, at least their learning can continue.

Of course the government has reinstated the option or schools to obtain laptops for families, which is great, but there is no endless supply. Our SendCo, who has a fantastic knowledge of the families in our school and their needs, took over the task of laptop ordering.

He compiles two priority lists, with list one being for those with no laptop or device and priority two for those who were sharing devices amongst a number of siblings. Since taking over this task at the start of week one he has managed to order, receive, and distribute, 19 laptops for those children.

Costs of the pandemic on schools

This does not mean that the issues SBMs had at the start of 2020 have gone away, far from it. It has become apparent just how much this pandemic has, and continues to, cost us.

There have been the unplanned costs of covering staff, additional cleaning costs and the ever-growing supply of sanitisers, anti-bacteria, PPE and soap. This is on top of the income schools have lost because they have not been able to rent out schools or organise fundraising initiatives as done in previous years.

It paints a dire picture for the year end.

In the summer of 2020 SBMs saw some light at the end of the tunnel when schools were told they could claim for these additional costs. I had kept a spreadsheet of the incurred costs so I was able to, quite easily, complete the claim form in early July and waited for the reimbursement.

This finally came in November but it was half the amount we had claimed for. The Government then opened up a window for schools to put in another claim but we were only able to claim for costs incurred in the summer term and there has been no announcement to say we can claim for further costs incurred since September.

It seems their view is that we should all be able to manage these costs from our core budget but I doubt any SBM budgeted for such excessive spend on non-learning resources.

How to manage Covid-19 in school

  • Ensure remote learning is in place and one person is responsible for managing passwords, codes and supporting parents.
  • Enlist a dedicated staff member to be responsible for identifying families at need of a device to use at home for remote learning.
  • Remind staff about e-safety and data protection when delivering lessons remotely. Ensure they understand that they must make sure no sensitive data is available on the screen and, if working from home, it is done in a suitable environment in which children cannot see the teacher’s home.
  • Enlist a dedicated member of staff to be responsible for ordering laptops and devices.
  • Encourage parents not to telephone school but to make use of email or other forms of communication and ensure admin staff field queries to the appropriate staff member.
  • Set up a Covid-19 cost centre to record all expenditure related to Covid costs.
  • Ensure a sufficient work-life balance is maintained.

Caroline Collins is Specialist Leader of Education and Head of School Business Strategy & Resources at Miles Coverdale Primary School, London.