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  • Writer's pictureEquality Act Audits

An accessible response to COVID-19 - is your school still inclusive?

Schools should not discriminate against those with a special educational need due to a disability and are required to have an ‘Accessibility Plan’ in place. This must show how they plan to improve accessibility for special educational needs pupils, and when they plan to do it. An ‘Accessibility Plan’ must consider all users of the school building and services; staff, pupils and visitors.

Pre-COVID was already a tough time for school leaders. Due to budget cuts, schools were forced to make teachers redundant, closing early, or even having to drop subjects from their curriculum to make ends meet. Unfortunately, accessibility planning in schools has always been an area that falls to the bottom of (an increasingly large) pile. This is usually because the lack of accessibility planning only becomes important when a specific issue arises, for example, the arrival of a disabled visitor or a pupil with a specific need.

With accessibility planning already being at the bottom of a very long list, the appearance of coronavirus has compounded the problem significantly.

There is no doubt that 2020 has been a year that many would like to forget, not to mention those working in education. When schools were forced to close earlier on in the year, teachers were under pressure to ensure that strategies and measures were put in place to alleviate the impact of this on learners with disabilities.

When schools opened In September, an enormous amount of planning and preparation had already taken place. New COVID-19 regulations meant that schools had to make judgements on how to balance minimising risk from coronavirus, by maximising control measures, whilst providing a full educational experience. Schools had to thoroughly review their health and safety risk assessments and draw up plans that addressed the risk identified using the government’s ‘System of Controls’.

To add to this, risk assessments were also carried out for children with Educational and Health Care Plans, to identify additional support needed to determine a successful return to school life.

Schools have had to adapt their settings significantly for non-SEND children, what about their SEND counterparts? In terms of accessibility planning, there is not a great deal of support and guidance available and many are having to use their common sense.

We would advise that all schools firstly undertake a full access audit of their building, published information, and curriculum. A good access consultant, who is sensitive to budgetary issues within school settings, and thus able to suggest practical ways to ensure compliance with equality legislation is always the best option. Once an Accessibility Plan is in place, then schools can consider adjustments to be made with regards to COVID-19.

It is worth noting that access consultants are now able to visit sites again, adhering to their own, and the school’s, COVID-19 policies. We have also performed some ‘remote’ access audits for schools, which include our COVID-19 Framework.

A question commonly asked by schools is the interpretation of what is considered a ‘reasonable adjustment’? Especially in times like these, determining what would be a ‘reasonable adjustment’ (especially to an un-trained eye) is extremely vague. Whilst the Equality Act 2010 does not actually state what is considered to be reasonable or not, it is actually designed for flexibility – what is reasonable in one circumstance might not be reasonable in another. All situations are different and whilst it is not possible to say what would or wouldn’t be reasonable in a specific situation without examination, there are some factors which do help to decide, for example the financial cost of making the adjustment, the practicality of the adjustment in question, or the impact on pupils.

As previously mentioned, Equality Act Audits has adapted their processes and can now either visit a site following protocols, or offer a remote access audit. A Coronavirus Framework has been introduced which prompts schools to think about their accessibility planning in terms of new COVID-19 legislation.

Additional measures do bring with them challenges in terms of accessibility and schools must be prepared to consider this.

Example - a school is promoting good respiratory hygiene with the ‘catch it, bin it, kill it’ approach. Additional signage has been put around the school which is all in bold uppercase lettering. Unfortunately, uppercase lettering is non-compliant with the Equality Act 2010. All signage must be in both uppercase and lowercase lettering so as to not potentially confuse those with a visual impairment.

Some pupils with complex needs may also struggle to maintain good respiratory hygiene, for example those who use saliva as a sensory stimulant. Schools will need to consider this in their risk assessments and ensure that they are treated equally and supported appropriately. To deny these pupils face-to-face education would be discrimination.

Maintaining social distancing in a school setting is extremely challenging, especially with the younger pupils. We have seen schools putting into place ‘bubbles’ of pupils, limited numbers in Staff Rooms, having staggered start and finish times and so on in order to maintain social distancing as much as possible. Classroom layouts have also been adjusted, with desks that were once facing each other, now in a straight line facing the front of the class.

Schools must think carefully about the social, emotional and physical impact some of these adjustments will have on children with SEND.

Example – a child with SEND returns to the school with severe anxiety after the lockdown and this is having an impact on progress. Additional support in this case, whether it be the extra assistance of a TA or the support from an external agency, would be considered a ‘reasonable adjustment’ for a school to make.

Example – a school decides to recommend the wearing of face coverings for pupils, staff and visitors in communal areas outside the classroom where the layout of the school makes it difficult to maintain social distancing. This school has a Year 7 child with a hearing impairment who relies on lip reading in order to communicate. It would be reasonable for all teachers and other pupils to be asked to remove their mask when communicating with the child in areas outside of the classroom.

Schools have had to publish more information on their website which is vital for the safety of their pupils. Coronavirus policies have been published and various other policies such as Health & Safety School Absence, Travel, Learning from Home, and so on have all been updated. With this information being so vital, it is important for schools to ensure that their published information is accessible for all. It would be reasonable for the school to be prepared to offer this information in a different way if it was requested, for example in simple language, large print, via digital audio, or Braille.

To summarise, the importance of accessibility planning should not be underestimated, especially in the current uncertain climate. Under normal circumstances (pre-COVID-19), schools were failing to capture all aspects of accessibility when trying to do it themselves. Now, it is even more important and the global crisis is indeed giving many schools a reminder that the need for inclusive and accessible education is paramount.

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