Testing positive: Principal shares school’s response to virus outbreak

My teachers put on a superhero cape and they are superheroes. They are extraordinary people, they put in 120 per cent.

In early March, two students at St Patrick’s Marist College Dundas were diagnosed with COVID-19. Principal Angela Hay tells us how the school managed it.

On Friday 6 March, Epping Boys High had to close when a Year 11 student tested positive for COVID-19. “We have close connections to Epping Boys,” St Patrick’s Marist College Principal Angela Hay said. The schools are just 15 minutes from each other. “As you can imagine, the rumours started flying around.” Over that weekend, Hay and her team were informed a parent of one of her school’s students had tested positive. There was also an unconfirmed report a second parent had fallen ill.

The school immediately contacted NSW Health and the Catholic Education Diocese of Parramatta (CEDP). “In a pandemic, as we’re in, NSW Health has control of the situation,” Hay said. “NSW Health is in charge of quarantining, of self-isolation, of decisions around school closures and of all school communications.” The school was told to progress as normal.

But the situation changed rapidly. Early in the morning of Monday 9 March, Hay received information that one of her Year 10 students had tested positive for the virus. She immediately renewed contact with NSW Health and the diocese. Then a second student snapchatted that they had the virus. This took some verifying. “By about 7am, we had confirmation that two of our students had tested positive for COVID-19,” Hay said. By then, St Patrick’s Marist students were already on their way to school.

Emergency meeting

The next move was to call an emergency meeting of the leadership team. Shortly after 7am, the Executive Director of CEDP, Greg Whitby, was on site, as was Mark Rix, Head of the Executive Office and Communications at CEDP. On the line was the Chief Executive of Catholic Schools NSW, Dallas McInerney, and two professors from NSW Health. The team mapped the way forward.

In anticipation of anxious phone calls from parents, the first step was working with support staff. The message was simple yet sobering: “Yes we have two cases of positive tests among our Year 10 students. We are working closely with NSW Health and waiting on their advice.”

Teachers take charge

From the outset, Hay emphasises the input of her teachers and support staff. “My team did an amazing job,” she said. “My teachers put on a superhero cape and they are superheroes. They are extraordinary people, they put in 120 per cent.”

The next step was a briefing with teachers, who were understandably anxious. The phrase of the moment was “close contact”. Who had been in close contact with the two students? What defined close contact? “Staff went back to their homerooms,” Hay said. “They were given a script about close contact and the students had to be named.” Teachers asked questions about music practices, sport, drama, who had sat next to who on the bus. But in no other communications were the students named.

Classes were cancelled and parents were asked to pick up their children. At this stage, all communications had to come through NSW Health, Hay said. It wasn’t a simple matter of a post on Facebook. “It was a letter sent out through Skoolbag and email,” Hay said.

The school’s phone began ringing hot with concerned parents: “My son is a close contact, does that mean my daughter is a close contact?” and “If my child is a close contact shouldn’t their best friend be too?” While the answers could only come from NSW Health, Hay was simultaneously grateful for parents providing much needed information and highly concerned that more people in the school community would test positive.

Cleaning and containment

During the next two days, the school was cleaned forensically. “We had two teams come in to clean from top to bottom,” Hay said. “They cleaned everything you can think of – every musical instrument, every desktop, every computer, every laptop, every door handle. It took two cleaning companies to come in and clean the school.”

Then came the containment strategy and the vexed question of social distancing in a school environment. When the school reopened on Thursday 12 March, Hay didn’t know how many people to expect.

“We had about 35 per cent of our staff out, and about 460 out of 1000 students turned up,” she said. “So we had the opportunity to spread students out. We had hygiene posters already up. And like many schools we have had frustrations. We had no hand sanitiser, we couldn’t get cleaning products. So I was relying on parents and my staff to bring their own, which is really difficult for me as a leader because my job is to protect my people. We did everything we possibly could.”

So on Monday 23 March, when the NSW Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, gave schools the go ahead to encourage families to stay at home, “it really turned the corner for us”, Hay said. “We put in some really high expectations.”

There were two teachers per classroom. Everyone had to stay at their own desks, and teachers no longer had access to a staffroom or lunchroom. All doors were kept open so no one needed to use door handles.

Successful strategies

Protecting staff was of great importance to Hay. “We had teachers who were concerned,” she said. “They have children, they had to make the very difficult decision about whether they were going to stay home and take carer’s leave.

“So I offered them the opportunity to use their own classroom and bring their children in when they needed to. Some of the staff have taken that up, and that’s been really helpful. But this would have been impossible to do with a full cohort of students in the school.”

The team’s strategies worked. “We’ve had no more known cases of COVID-19,” Hay said.

The school’s practices were of paramount importance throughout this time. “We have a policy and process for everything,” Hay said. “The key policy was our emergency plan, along with our communications and privacy plans, which every school has in place.

“Our plan clearly outlines infectious diseases and shutdowns. However, we didn’t have pandemic specifically included, nor did we have a remote learning policy. These are both there now.”

Nothing but praise

Hay says the school community is weathering the coronavirus crisis well. Even though we’re apart, she says, connection at the school has never been stronger. “The collaboration between our staff has been extraordinary – the innovation, the willingness to try new ideas, that’s been absolutely fantastic,” Hay said.

“I’ve talked a lot about the teachers, but my whole staff and my support staff, they’ve been on the frontline, they’ve been phenomenal.”

Monica Crouch
Members can watch the full interview at: theieuzone.org.au Completing "Interview regarding Covid-19: A Principal’s story" will contribute one hour of NESA Registered PD addressing 4.4.2; 7.4.2 from the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers towards maintaining Proficient Teacher Accreditation in NSW.