On the Sofa with Vicki Hunt

On the Sofa with Vicki Hunt

Posted  22nd June 2020

Getting the best from your staff is something we all strive for, but we are finding schools evaluating this in greater depth in the current workplace environment. We sat down with our Head of Employment Law, Vicki Hunt, to get advice and guidance around dealing with members of staff during this confusing time.

There has been a lot of discussion around BAME staff and what the school can do to best accommodate this group. One of the key things to remember is not to treat anyone differently. Everyone should be getting the best protection possible, it is the school’s duty to keep their staff safe.

The first thing to do is start to categorise members of staff into the different categories provided by the government’s guidance. These categories are as follows:

  1. Critically Extremely Vulnerable (CEV) – these are members of staff with serious underlying health conditions who are at high risk of severe illness and have been advised by a GP or a clinician to stay at home. These members of staff would have received a letter – school leaders are legally allowed to ask staff to provide evidence of this letter. It is important to remember that this confidential medical information needs to be stored correctly in compliance with data protection guidelines. Staff in this category should be advised to stay at home for now and continue to do the work they can from home.

  2. Staff who are shielding because they live with someone who is CEV – Guidance says that we should endeavour to allow these members of staff to work from home if they can. If they cannot work from home then their role at school needs to be prioritised as a socially distanced role where they can keep their 2m distance. If you cannot ensure they stay 2 meters away from other at all times, it is not expected that they attend work. Again, the school can ask for evidence that they are in fact shielding due to someone they live with being ECV.

  3. Clinically Vulnerable (CV) – these are members of staff with a slightly higher risk of severe illness from an existing condition, for example asthma. Pregnant staff would fall under this category. Again, guidance says that we should endeavour to allow them to work from home if they can; however, if that is not possible, they can attend work. Where possible, they should be placed in a role that allows them to remain 2 meters from others at all times; however, if that is not feasible, here needs to be specific risk assessments and you ought to discuss with the staff member whether there is an acceptable level of risk.

  4. Staff who are shielding because they live with someone who is CV – with the guidance makes it clear that these individuals an attend school, and will be protected by the general risk measures you have put in place for others on school site. These members of staff may required additional reassurance on the wider-school measures, to alleviate any fears they may have.

  5. BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) Employees – The government announced that people who fall within this category are at risk of experiencing higher symptoms should they catch Covid-19. However, guidance has not specified that members within this community should be included within the CEV or CV category. One of the key things to remember is not to treat anyone differently. Everyone should be getting the best protection possible, it is the school’s duty to keep their staff safe.

Occupational Health

If the school really wants to assure staff members that they have put all the safety measures in place for their wellbeing, then occupational health is another great resource. Judicium’s Occupational Health provider has actually put a Covid-19 screening in place, and are suggesting that schools get every member of staff screened before going back into school. The school has then put that extra safety measure in place along with the Health and Safety measures that were put in to ensure the school is a safe working environment for the staff.

Dealing with Nervous Members of Staff who are Reluctant to Return to Work

After the school has put in all the safety measures possible to ensure the safety of their members of staff, some staff are still reluctant to return to work.

The key thing in this instance is always communication! Sit down with the member of staff who is reluctant and find out what their issues and concerns are, is the school in any position to come to a sort of compromise? Having a conversation with your staff and letting them know that their concerns are being heard will make them feel less concerned about returning to work. There is also the chance that that member of staff might raise a concern that your school hadn’t actually thought about.

The second thing the school can do is to sit down with the member of staff and go through the Risk Assessment with them and show them all the measures that have been put into place to ensure their safety.

Unfortunately, there is no “one size, fits all” solution to these problems. The school really needs to understand the individual circumstances of the staff members, then finding a solution becomes easier – again, this boils down to communication.

Schools obviously cannot force anyone into work, but if a staff member is still refusing to come into work after the school has done everything it absolutely can to ensure the staff members’ safety, then, there are some more extreme measures that can be taken:

  • The school can suggest unpaid leave, there is no entitlement to sit at home on full pay at this point in time, irrespective of who the employee is. For the community schools, before suggesting unpaid leave, do find out what the Local Authority’s position on it is. A large number of Local Authorities are saying that unpaid leave can be imposed if a member of staff is refusing to return to work. The problem with unpaid leave is that although it saves the school money, it doesn’t solve the problem of not having enough staff members at school.
  • The school also has the option of ending the employment of a specific member of staff who is refusing to return to work. This is similar to someone on long term sick leave, can the school maintain their absence indefinitely? No one knows how long things will be continue to go on like this. However, we strongly advise that you seek HR advice before taking any steps to dismiss an employee, as this needs to be handled very carefully to avoid legal recourse again the school.

Dealing with Members of Staff who have become very difficult to reach since lockdown:

Some schools have complained about members of staff who have not been performing to the best of their ability. Some members of staff are not completing work tasks that they’ve been asked to do, they’re slacking off, they’re difficult to pin down, they’re not replying to emails and in some instances have completely “fallen off the grid” since the beginning of lockdown and are impossible to get hold of.

This is where disciplinary or capability procedures come into play:

  • If a member of staff is not pulling their weight, the first thing would be to have a conversation with them and let them know that the spot light is on them and they’re being monitored. If their quality of work still does not improve, then there is the option of issuing management guidance.
  • If the school cannot get hold of a member of staff, with the current guidance in place, a school leader is able to drive over there and see what’s going on- whilst maintaining social distance. This could also be a staff welfare issue.

Dealing with Members of Staff whose roles and responsibilities have slightly changed since lockdown:

Since mid-March 2020, everyone has had to be pretty flexible with how they’re working. Roles and responsibilities have changed and we are seeing instances like mid-day supervisors are writing activities for the children.

Some job descriptions have become rather blurry over the past few months, and it brings about its own set of problems. But there are also the issues around staff who are nervous about performing their own jobs - there are some domestic cleaners who do not want to do the deep clean and first aiders who don’t want to assist anyone who is showing Covid-19 related symptoms.

How does a school deal with these changes?

First and foremost, can the school offer the members of staff training? This can help people feel more capable when conducting these slightly altered roles. The school cannot force a member of staff to do a job that doesn’t fall within their job description but they can encourage them to assist.

Again, communication is key here. Speaking to the members of staff about the changes can aid in them wanting to help.