The last thing any school wants to do is to send out those dreaded letters highlighting a head lice infestation or worse, an outbreak of norovirus. While outbreaks such as norovirus aren’t life-threatening, they can be very disruptive in a school setting due to their highly contagious nature.
An outbreak is defined as when two or more people experiencing a similar illness are linked in time or place, and when there’s a greater than expected rate of infection compared with the usual background rate for the environment in which the outbreak has occurred.
With many childhood infections, a child may be contagious for a day or two before symptoms start to show, so it’s not always possible to know early on whether children are spreading viruses or bacteria to each other. It is, however, possible to limit the spread through effective hand washing, which is the best way of preventing infection spread, particularly those that cause diarrhoea, vomiting and respiratory disease.
If headteachers suspect an outbreak, they should contact their local health protection team (HPT) to discuss whether further actions are needed. The HPT will need to know the total number of children affected, the nature of the symptoms, the date they started and the number of classes affected. The HPT will then likely advise the headteacher to contact parents and inform them of their responsibilies regarding infection control.
The HPT will regularly contact the school during an outbreak to collect information about any new cases. Schools should therefore ensure that all incidents are recorded and information clearly logged.
To help control the spread of an outbreak, isolate all individuals with symptoms, be they staff or pupils, and alert anyone who’s been in contact with them so that they too can check for symptoms. Those affected should avoid contact with pregnant women and people with impaired immunity.
Containing the spread
Anyone unwell during the day should be sent home as soon as possible. The risk of disease spreading will be reduced considerably if infected people are removed as soon as possible, so ensure that there’s a parental pick up plan in place to minimise the length of time that sick children remain on site. If a child is unwell and waiting to be collected, they should be cared for in an isolated area where they can’t further infect other children.
The same rules apply to staff – they can return to work once they’re no longer infectious, but may need to receive clearance from their GP before this can happen. Government guidance on how to manage infectious diseases can be found via tinyurl.com/gov-infection.
Communal play should be stopped until the outbreak has been contained and communal hot spots should be cleaned more regularly than usual. The flu virus, for example, can live on surfaces for around 24 hours. Give commonly touched areas, such as toilet doors and seats, flush mechanisms, fridge handles and switches, a daily wipe down to help contain germs.
Clean and disinfect all doors, cabinet handles, drinking fountains and toilet surfaces at the end of each day, ideally using paper or disposable towels to clean. Reusable cloths should be disinfected or washed at 60°C after every use.
Emma Hammett is a registered general nurse and the founder/ CEO of the first aid training provider First Aid for Life