Are schools prepared for severe cold snaps this winter?

  • Extreme weather events pose a challenge for schools
  • In 2013, cold weather led to massive disruption and the closure of 5,000 schools
  • Business continuity is a key part of returning to normal

In recent years, Britain has been getting used to episodes of extreme weather – including some severe cold snaps. For example, in January 2013 around 5,000 schools were closed when heavy snow and ice brought Britain to a standstill.

The decision to close a school is never easy and not taken lightly. Keeping the doors open is important both to maintain the continuity of teaching for students, and to avoid forcing costly and disruptive childcare arrangements on parents.

But sometimes the weather conspires to defy the best efforts of everyone involved. Ultimately, it’s head teachers, in consultation with school governors, who make the final decision on whether or not to close a school.

“Head teachers should use common sense in assessing the risks and keep their schools open whenever it is safe to do so,” says the Department for Education.

This decision should be based on a range of local circumstances, including the number of teachers who are able to make it into work safely, how dangerous local road conditions are, and whether or not there are any problems with vital supplies such as food for school dinners, heating or water.

Making thoroughfares safe

Another important consideration is on-site health and safety. Head teachers will need to assess whether areas such as pathways and playgrounds can be made safe in time for students arriving.

In very exceptional circumstances, a local authority can order all community and voluntary-controlled schools to close, although the more autonomous foundation, independent or voluntary-aided schools or academies are outside their control.

When the school gates close, the decision sends ripples out across the community.

Some parents become concerned that their children will be trapped at school when it snows and phone the school asking them to be sent home straight away, according to Brian Lightman, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

“At the other end of the spectrum, parents get frustrated by school closures and are concerned about childcare arrangements and disruption,” he says.

It’s also important to remember that teachers are often parents as well.

Parents have a legal right to take a ‘reasonable’ amount of time off to make other arrangements, but what constitutes ‘reasonable’ can vary in different circumstances and ‘other arrangements’ can be tricky to find, especially during a prolonged closure.

In addition, the majority of people who are unable to work due to school closures don’t get paid, according to Trades’ Union Congress (TUC) policy advisor Paul Sellers. Although the TUC “strongly advises against withholding pay or forcing staff to take holiday,” he says.

Meanwhile, businesses have to adapt to absent staff and the knock-on effect on their customers.

After the storm

But while the world may be temporarily turned upside down by the weather, eventually the thaw will come and it will be time to get back to normal.

Zurich Municipal advises schools to be prepared, with a business continuity plan that addresses the issue. 
Not only will it help you deal with the situation as it unfolds, but it will help your transition back to business as normal.

Before any bad weather is forecast prepare a list of areas of the school that may pose a particular risk in cold weather, such as building entrances, steps, sloping paths, car parks and other busy areas. Make sure facilities staff know how to assess conditions.

Have a plan ready explaining how decisions will be made and clear information about what staff and parents can expect.

In return, staff need to know that you expect them to make every effort to get into work if they are required, without taking any unnecessary risks.

If they can’t make it in, staff need to know who to contact and when. They also need to know what roles they can carry out remotely. Can they do marking or administration? Can students study from home if you have a Virtual Learning Environment? Who will contact them?

If the weather is so bad that no-one can get on to school premises, make sure the school has plans for contacting staff from head teachers’ homes and contact details are kept up to date and accessible.

As soon as the weather improves, everyone needs to be back on site as soon as possible.

Remember that risk mitigation tactics – such as opening later and closing earlier, limiting the extent to which students move around site through the day, or making use of alternative facilities, such as the school hall – may mean that you can open the doors sooner.

When the school re-opens, leaders need to work with staff and students to get back to normal immediately. Any damage to the building fabric needs to be repaired as a matter of urgency and studies need to progress again as smoothly as possible.

With preparation and planning, any disruption will soon be a thing of the past – although take care to document any lessons learned. It will be winter again before you know it.