As the UK education system continues to struggle under the weight of Covid-19, a Cheshire man is taking matters into his own hands by donating free PPE and sanitation equipment to schools to keep teachers and students safe.
Whilst the debate goes on amongst the government, teachers unions and medical experts about whether schools should be open, Mike Cohen, 49, who set up his own PPE and sanitising equipment business in January 2020 at the start of the worldwide pandemic, is taking urgent action that he says the government should have done sooner, claiming it hasn’t done enough to support schools financially or with the right sanitisation and PPE. Mike has already provided tens of thousands of complimentary PPE to schools across the UK and donated his PORTIBAC sanitising equipment to assist head teachers with the task of deep cleaning classrooms and communal spaces.
Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that about one in 50 secondary school pupils was infected at the end of last term – twice the rate of adults over the age of 25. In December, England’s chief inspector of schools, Amanda Spielman, said having to isolate because of covid-19 was having a detrimental effect on children’s education and wellbeing.
Since then the government has announced it is rolling out mass covid testing for secondary school pupils, with the Prime Minister saying it is a ‘national priority’ to keep schools and colleges open. This, despite individual local authorities and London boroughs recommending their schools stay closed, with teachers’ unions echoing their calls.
Mike Cohen from THEHANDiGROUP.com says: “Right from the very start of the pandemic, the UK Government was recommending schools, airports, train stations and other public places to sanitise, sanitise, sanitise and Boris Johnson himself made very public promises to provide funding to schools to help them do just that and keep them safe.
“Just last week, the director-general of the World Health Organisation, Dr Tedros said in his New Year address that it is the government’s responsibility to make sure key workers are supplied with PPE; this should include schools.
“As a business that produces only quality PPE and sanitisation equipment, we’ve heard from hundreds of schools across the UK who are desperate to do the right thing to keep covid away from their doors, but who are struggling to get hold of the necessary equipment from lack of government promises and don’t have the financial resources to cover the cost. We’ve taken the decision as a business to help where we can, but clearly this is the Government’s responsibility to make sure teachers and pupils are protected with much needed PPE. The Government needs to do more to help schools further, whilst of course reiterating the need to sanitise effectively, making all school environments safer.
“If Matt Hancock had done this sooner, we might not be having to deal with testing of every secondary school and college student in England.”
Can the UK government put hand on heart and say it has done as much as it can to keep our schools safe?
According to headteachers in schools across England they have not. Despite the Prime Minister publicly promising at the start of the first lockdown to support schools with money for PPE and sanitisation, many heads are having to draw upon financial reserves to keep staff and pupils safe – with some saying those reserves have now been depleted to nothing. Government money has come too late and there’s simply not enough of it.
In addition, schools are having to rely upon the generosity of people in their own communities who have donated PPE, sanitising equipment, as well as their time, to keep schools open and safe. These companies and individuals are filling the financial gap left by the government.
Two case studies:
One Executive Head Teacher (who wants to remain anonymous), who runs three schools in a London borough, claims he has spent over £40,000 a month on professional cleaning across the three schools he oversees. From March to the end of September, he was spending £1500 per week to fog every school, allowing them to stay open and keep staff and students safe – as well as the unions off his back.
He has had to find more cost effective solutions which has involved staff doing it themselves, detracting them from teaching students. This of course this massively impacts on staffing costs and their time, both of which are in short supply.
He says: “Our commitment to keeping our schools safe has resulted in us having only one or two confirmed covid cases since September, and we’ve only had to send 30 students and one member of staff home across the three schools to self-isolate.
“Our borough has been able to provide us with financial support so we are very lucky, but I know it varies from borough to borough. It’s a lot about relationships between individual schools and their borough. This money has come from surplus budgets at borough level but that pot is now decimated. We’ve also been able to draw upon our own surplus budgets that were intended to enhance learning in our 3 schools. Projects we had planned have been put on hold as a result – for example we are no longer able to recruit for new positions which puts extra pressure on existing staff.
“What will happen in 2021 is hanging over us like a big question mark. A lot depends on what the government decides to do in terms of honouring the promises it made at the start of the pandemic to support schools financially to help them stay open.”
The Executive Head is calling on the government to be transparent with schools about how the vaccination programme is going to work and how it will impact schools. And he wants to see the government commit to standing by its agreement to support schools financially as it promised to do back in March:
“I’m not expecting them to pay my total bill for keeping our schools clean and safe – after all, we went above and beyond what was expected of us – but I’d like to see them honour their original commitment and I’d hope that all those hours of filling in and submitting forms on their request would come to something. We did what we were asked to do so they should honour their side of the deal.”
Ian Wilson is headteacher of The Bishops’ Blue Coat CE High School in Chester. His school only received its first local authority PPE support box at the end of November and, again, has had to rely on financial reserves to fund PPE and other cleaning measures, as well as donations from local businesses.
Comments Ian: “A member of our local community, Mike Cohen, who runs a company called HANDiGROUP that produces hand, screen and surface sanitisers, face masks, gloves and room sanitising equipment, got in touch with the school offering to supply complementary equipment to help us keep the school Covid secure.
“As well as supplying us with much needed face masks and hand sanitisers, he donated a PORTiBAC sanitiser backpack ‘fogger’ which enables us to sanitise our three marquees in just five minutes each.
“Schools have not received adequate funding and devices which save hours of cleaning time – saving expense in terms of cleaning-hours, has of course also provided much needed reassurance that we are doing all we can to make our school as safe as possible.
“We want to say a massive thank you to people like Mike who have stepped in across the country to fill the gap left by the government.”