In recent weeks, many of us have been in panic mode. The word ‘coronavirus’ has entered the lexicon and barely a day goes by without a new development.
As scientists race to develop a vaccine, ordinary folk are self-isolating themselves at home in case their coughs turn out to be COVID-19. It’s become a hypochondriac’s paradise, complete with face masks and fears of super-spreaders.
Some steps have been sensible and necessary. After all, we’ve had several genuine local scares.
The first involved a couple from Newcastle, who’d been staying near the epicentre of the outbreak in China. They were flown back to Britain and kept in quarantine for a fortnight before testing negative.
Then a Nantwich shoe shop shut for several days while an employee awaited test results, which also came back clear. And just days later, the Etruria custody facility went into lockdown when a prisoner was suspected of contracting the disease.
So far, we’ve been lucky. But what if the coronavirus really does take hold in our region? What will it mean for public services, such as schools?
Public Health England has issued some key tips to schools in case a pupil or member of staff comes down with the symptoms. And the main tenor of the guidance is don’t panic. Schools don’t need to send everyone home.
If there’s a suspected case on site, they should isolate the person behind a closed door, such as an office or meeting room. These spaces should be cleaned after they leave.
There are the usual hygiene measures, including washing hands with soap and using tissues to cover coughs and sneezes. If a case is confirmed, the school should contact the local health protection team.
We’ve become so used to schools shutting for the day whenever there’s an outbreak of a dreaded lurgy, that the latest advice seems like an anti-climax.
Before Christmas, norovirus had pupils dropping like flies in some North Staffordshire schools and they had to close for deep cleans.
The Government has a list of ‘notifiable diseases’, where schools are obliged to report suspected outbreaks to their local authority.
The threshold can be surprisingly low. If two or more pupils have measles, for instance, it becomes notifiable.
We’ve got far more chance of catching winter flu than the coronavirus. But it doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.
Over the years, schools have weathered a variety of public health emergencies.
I remember chatting to one headteacher after the foot and mouth outbreak, who’d been forced to close his village school, near Stafford, for a week before SATs. One of the Year 6 pupils lived on an affected farm.
The head told me the lowest ebb was hearing gunshots echoing around the school playground as animals were slaughtered nearby. Parents were crying at the gates.
It’s hard to get back to normality after an experience like that. But school staff are ever the professionals and just get on with things.
In China and Hong Kong, staff are even adapting to month-long school closures by using technology to teach pupils.
Form tutors video-conference pupils to check on their home learning. Teachers record podcasts and use cloud-based computing for assignments. It’s been ingenuity in action.
Back in North Staffordshire, the coronavirus has yet to strike. But if it does, it won’t stop children learning.
How about a science lesson on super-viruses?