Any thoughts? Until recently, I would probably have laughed at such an outlandish proposition as being even vaguely plausible. Still, life brings nothing if not experiences and a good slice of humble pie. The scenario outlined above is now a staple one for the local authority in its trip leader training and one which I ended up having to manage on the ground.
Let me say this now, if you are running a school trip and want to choose a country for over half of your students and staff to fall ill, make it Belgium, the emergency response is outstanding! Coordinated services, clear communication, and everyone bending over backwards to be of assistance. When our history battlefields trip party fell victim to an outbreak of illness last week, every single agency we worked with in Belgium was absolutely fantastic. From the staff in the ferry terminal, to paramedics and police, right through to staff in the youth hostel. We could not have asked for more in terms of care and compassion. All of this, coupled with students who dealt bravely with the crisis and the support of my own amazing colleagues, meant that all students were eventually returned home safely.
For those of you who missed the news headlines, a little extra detail. Recently, I was leading our annual battlefields tour of eighty students and eight staff . It was set to be a 5 day tour of the battlefields of Flanders and the Somme. Days 1 to 3 were brilliant, amazing students and real interest in the history. But on day 4 unexpected problems struck. By 11pm on our final full day in Belgium I had 45 students, 4 staff and 1 driver in 7 hospitals all across northern Belgium.
Despite the fact we all got home safely, a situation like this is every teacher's worst nightmare! However, the purpose of this blog is not to reflect on the details of what happened, the newspapers have already covered that angle, rather to reflect on the issues that arose for us as teachers during the two days. Hopefully I will be able to offer some thoughts on what helped and hindered us in the process of getting our kids back home.
I don’t really want to teach people to suck eggs here, but I am sure we have all rolled our eyes or moaned about completing the reams of risk assessments and other documents required to run a school trip. Granted my special notes on preventing kids from stubbing their toes on uneven ground, or stopping them from falling off the side of a ferry, seemed somewhat redundant as forty-five of them were wheeled away to ambulances on Monday night. However, the planning processes were not without their merits. For starters, the hospitals who dealt with us were moving incredibly quickly to get students and staff admitted to hospitals. The paramedics wanted instant access to information such as names, medical conditions, dates of birth, genders and so on. Having all of this information ready to go in a folder was invaluable as it meant that no time was wasted and students were able to get the care they needed quickly. Having photocopies of all lists, itineraries, passports and EHIC cards meant that we were able to hand over documentation to paramedics straight away and were still able to maintain our own records of events.
Routines were important as well. Before and during the trip, we were rigorous about ensuring students knew the rules and procedures for travelling abroad. One example is that all students were asked to regularly register with their lead teacher. When the ambulances began to arrive, it was relatively easy to get students to repeat this routine as they had done it so often. Giving each teacher 20 students and one supporting member of staff also helped as it gave them the opportunity to coordinate the counting. This was certainly better than my previous practice of giving each member of staff 10 students each. As a result, counting students and identifying who was in which location was made that little bit easier. Following the same routines also gave the students a sense of calm and normality and allowed staff to relay information and updates to them quickly and easily. Similarly, although we were not referring to risk assessments directly, the fact that we followed agreed routines, shared well before the trip, meant that many of the basics continued on a kind of autopilot – no-one goes off in groups of less than four; always tell a member of staff where you are going; ensure that students don’t cross roads unsupervised; ensure that students are staying hydrated; and so on. This meant we could focus on the more important issues at hand.
It almost goes without saying, but make sure you have exchanged numbers with all your staff members before the trip begins. Also ensure that your mobile can hold charge. If you have a fancy phone you need to turn of the data if you want the battery to last a full day. During the two days of the trip I made and received 214 phone calls so make sure you have a charger with you. Oh and make sure you have no limit on spending abroad if it’s your phone, Three cut me off when I hit £50 and it took a little while to get my phone working again. Luckily I had access to other phones too.
On the same note, be aware that students will use their phones to contact home as well. We decided to allow the students to keep their phones as an important link to home, however we asked them not to speculate or worry their parents unnecessarily. We also ensured that we communicated new information to school before passing this on to students. This allowed school to contact parents first, an important aspect of trust. We did not withhold information from students, but were very clear about communicating in a calm way. At every stage we outlined the options being looked at and explained how this affected them. For instance, during the early stages of the illness, we explained that we needed to confirm if we would be allowed on the ferry or not, and if not that we would either be accommodated nearby, or taken to another crossing route. Almost all students respected the boundaries of communication and all commented that having their phones helped them feel more secure. Staff reassurances were vital in this.
Finally, make sure you have a financial plan. Keep a little money left over until you are back home, or ensure that you have access to a credit card. One taxi ride (paid on insurance thankfully) demanded 450 Euros which could have been a disaster. Similarly, we needed to buy students extra meals before the emergency response kicked in so extra money was vital.
I was going to lead with an image of the A Team here, then I realised that their motto is "no Plan B" which seemed a little unhelpful... also Mr T's aversion to flying would have been a real issue! Ah...what the hell...my trip team were brilliant - I think they deserve this!
Again, much of the detail here might seem fairly obvious, but it is worth reiterating anyway. Clearly you will need someone who is first aid trained on your trip. This is a prerequisite for any trip running out of our school and in this case we had two people with qualifications which made a huge difference when caring for the sick in the early stages and once they were returned to us. The more first aid qualifications you have with you, the better. I am honestly considering renewing my own qualification after this experience and will be recommending the whole department do the same.
I have always been of the view that you want to take at least some staff who have been on the trip before, where possible. This means that some of the basic routines are embedded and staff are confident with the basic routines if emergencies happen. That said, I took a new member of staff on this particular trip who proved to be outstanding, so this is not necessarily a pre-requisite.
I also tend to consider who will be able to support children emotionally if an emergency should arise (we all know people who do this brilliantly, so make the most of them) and those who are able to keep calm in a crisis. From my experience people generally step up to the plate in an emergency and all my colleagues were absolutely fantastic in this regard.
A deputy leader is a must, someone who is able co-ordinate aspects of the situation without needing further direction. Make sure you have briefed them fully at all stages. I was confident that, if I had fallen sick, my deputy could have taken over the running of affairs fully. It is also helpful to have someone who is very well organised on hand, as information comes thick and fast and you will need to keep records of as much of it as possible. I would also highly recommend having a head of year or someone similar on board. Having someone who knows every student by name is crucial when the situation is changing rapidly. An alternative would be to have photos of students attached to each record on the register.
Finally, make sure you have a contact back at school who will be available at all times. The link to school was a really critical lifeline. It meant that we seldom had to make decisions without consultation and meant that lines of communication home could be dealt with by the school instead of by staff on the trip.
That’s all for today, but I will be updating the blog tomorrow to cover some of the major issues we faced as the events began to unfold. All comments and questions welcome.