Adapting to the new normal

Schools are having to deal with a dynamic situation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Fiona Riley, Chair of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health’s Education Group, looks at how schools are managing risks including psycho-social issues.

Forty-six per cent of all secondary schools in the UK have pupils self-isolating, but attendance has fallen by just one per cent – according to the latest figures reported by BBC News.

This is important. It shows schools are ensuring their pupils continue to learn while dealing with challenges brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. These issues include staff shortages, so where necessary schools have reverted to online learning or a combination of both online and face-to-face teaching.

Pupils need to be back in school, even if this process is interrupted. It’s better for their wellbeing to be with their cohort, as they need to socially interact. Attending school is an important part of their life.
Working from home is challenging as an adult and even more so for children and young people. Some schools are not well resourced and so struggle to provide laptops for pupils learning from home. Not all children have the luxury of sitting at a desk either, yet another benefit of being back in the classroom.

Focus on mental health

A topic being talked about a lot is the importance of people being confident in the workplace and feeling that their physical as well as mental health risk is being managed.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that Covid-19 may never go away and predicts a global mental health crisis. So, when schools are looking at risk assessments, they need to focus on mental health risks, too, and demonstrate how they are managing psycho-social issues.

Most schools are already focused on pupil mental health and a large number will have mental health first aiders in place. These staff members need to be closely monitored and supported to ensure they remain resilient because dealing with mental health issues every day can impact wellbeing.

There are also issues that may not have been considered. Some people who were shielding initially and are still teaching online may find it hard to return to the workplace because they prefer working in a virtual environment. This is particularly true of older members of staff. Support staff may also be working from home and could potentially feel isolated.

It’s also important that risk assessments are continually reviewed to ensure they reflect the current situation. Many schools will have prepared their Covid-19 risk assessment at the start of the academic year, but have they looked at it again? We are halfway through the autumn term and things are changing all the time.

We are reaching a point where schools will be affected by the general round of bugs that circulate at this point in the academic year. Teachers are used to this, the nature of their work makes them very good at managing risks, and they are probably just adapting their normal pattern of risk assessment to work with the current Covid-19 guidelines.

An emerging issue requiring attention is challenges faced by pupils and staff with auditory skills problems that were previously unknown or undisclosed. With many schools encouraging or requiring face coverings, those who rely on lip reading are struggling to deal with people wearing masks. In this circumstance, schools are having to be resourceful to provide additional support. Some schools are utilising clear face shields.

Adapting to the ‘new normal’

When a school experiences an outbreak, they need to follow their business continuity plan to ensure all necessary actions are carried out. This ‘new normal’ is going to be with us for some time, so we must move forward with it.

Some parents have complained about children having to self-isolate, but schools are just following government guidelines. Inevitably, some children will have to go home and unfortunately there have been issues with testing, but we need to accept we are going to be living with Covid-19 for a while and things are going to be operating differently.

Schools adapt all the time and have continued to do so throughout the pandemic. Teachers who are used to standing in front of a group of 25 to 30 pupils to deliver a class in secondary school tend to have agility and resilience covered. You have to be in that mindset to be an effective teacher and engage with your class.

It’s important we recognise how well schools have dealt the whole Covid-19 situation. There have been outbreaks, but these have been well-managed.

Much of the further education sector has moved completely online, so many of those learners are quite isolated. Senior schools are in and learning, which is great.

Most parents who have home-schooled are grateful schools are open and realise how hard it is for teachers who do this job every day. In fact, many people have a fresh appreciation for teachers and do feel schools have a good grip on managing the situation.

Help is available

My takeaway message is that we should reflect on how well schools have coped in an ever-changing landscape and re-emphasise the importance of making sure mental health is properly managed. This should be the focus now.

I would like to signpost the help available. My professional body, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), has supported its members throughout the pandemic with up-to-date information and continues to do so. This includes free resources such as webinars on a host of Covid-19-themed topics.

IOSH has also approved a range of mental health and wellbeing-focused e-learning courses with iHASCO and these can be trialled free of charge.

If people are struggling, it’s probably beneficial to take an hour out and do an online course.
You can’t expect head teachers to have the capacity to manage every facet, so where there are options for people to go online and utilise these tools, I recommend they do.

By focusing on mental health, we can try to ensure people are equipped to deal with any issues they may face. It’s a fact that people do better and are more productive if their physical and mental wellbeing needs are being met.

School-specific information, produced by IOSH in collaboration with WHO, can be accessed at and the Covid-19 suite of resources can be viewed here: