Last reviewed 8 September 2021

What can schools and early years providers do to keep their pupils and children safe? Martin Hodgson provides comprehensive coverage of all the appropriate guidance on Covid-19.

This information is being continually checked and updated.

What is coronavirus?

The World Health Organization defines coronaviruses as a family of viruses that cause infectious illness ranging from very mild to very severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Covid-19 is a new strain which originated in China at the end of 2019. It has since spread worldwide and in March 2020 a global pandemic was declared.

How does coronavirus spread?

People can catch Covid-19 from others who are infected.

It is understood that the virus moves from person-to-person in droplets from the nose or mouth which are spread when a person with Covid-19 coughs or exhales. In addition, the virus can survive for up to 72 hours out of the body on surfaces. People can become infected if they breathe in the droplets or touch infected surfaces and then touch their eyes, nose or mouth.

The incubation period of Covid-19 is between 2 to 10 days.

What are the symptoms?

The NHS recognise the main symptoms of coronavirus as:

  • fever and high temperature – people will feel “hot to touch” on their chest or back (37.8 degrees Celsius or above)

  • new, continuous dry cough – the NHS define this as coughing a lot for more than an hour, or 3 or more coughing episodes in 24 hours (someone with an existing cough may find that it is worse than usual)

  • loss or change to the sense of smell or taste – the NHS defines this as someone noticing that they cannot smell or taste anything, or things smell or taste different to normal

Most people with coronavirus have at least one of these symptoms. Other less common symptoms include aches and pains, nasal congestion, headache, conjunctivitis, sore throat, diarrhoea, or a skin rash or discoloration of fingers or toes.

Symptoms begin gradually and are usually mild. Most people (about 80%) recover from the disease without needing special treatment. A small percentage can become seriously ill and develop difficulty breathing. This is particularly dangerous for people with weakened immune systems, for older people, and for those with long-term conditions such as diabetes, cancer and chronic lung disease.

Some infected individuals may show no symptoms but are still able to pass on the virus, especially in the early stages of infection. This is described as asymptomatic spread.

Children and young people can become ill with coronavirus. However, they seem in general to be less susceptible to the virus and even when infected most do not tend to develop serious illness. As with adults, pre-existing medical conditions are a key risk factor.

How can people protect themselves?

Throughout the pandemic Public Health England (PHE) has recommended the following general “handwashing and respiratory hygiene” precautions to help people protect themselves and prevent spreading the virus:

  • cover the mouth and nose with a tissue or sleeve (not hands) when coughing or sneezing (Catch it, Bin it, Kill it)

  • put used tissues in the bin straight away

  • wash hands with soap and water often — wash for 20 seconds and use hand sanitiser gel if soap and water are not available

  • try to avoid close contact with people who are unwell

  • clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces

  • do not touch eyes, nose or mouth if hands are not clean.

In addition, by law people are required to “self-isolate” in certain circumstances.

How do you self-isolate?

Self-isolating is a key element in fighting the pandemic. It is understood that most people will no longer be likely to transmit the virus 10 days after the onset of symptoms. Self-isolation is therefore designed to slow down the spread of the virus and protect others whilst someone may be infectious.

People should stay at home and self-isolate as follows:

  • those who have symptoms of infection and live alone should self-isolate by staying at home and not leaving their house for 10 days from when the symptoms started – they should arrange for a test to confirm that they have Covid-19

  • those who test positive for coronavirus should continue to self-isolate for 10 days from onset of symptoms, or 10 days from point of taking a positive test if they are asymptomatic – those who test negative can stop self-isolating as long as they are well

  • those who live with others and one person has symptoms should self-isolate as a household for 10 days from the day when the first person in the house became ill (if anyone else in the household starts displaying symptoms, they need to stay at home for 10 days from when the symptom appeared, regardless of what day they are on in the original 10-day isolation period)

  • those who have been in contact with a person who has had a positive test result must self-isolate at home for 10 days from the date of their last contact.

People should self-isolate irrespective of whether or not they are vaccinated against Covid-19. Those who are contacted by NHS Test and Trace must follow isolation guidance provided by contact tracers. Individuals could be fined if they do not self-isolate following a notification by NHS Test and Trace.

It should be noted that the rules changed on 16 August to recognise the lower risk that fully vaccinated people have of passing on the virus. For instance, from that date individuals are not be required to self-isolate if they live in the same household as someone with Covid-19 and they are fully vaccinated or below the age of 18 years 6 months. In this respect fully vaccinated means being vaccinated with an MHRA approved Covid-19 vaccine in the UK and that at least 14 days have passed since receiving the second dose.

Stay at home: guidance for households with possible or confirmed coronavirus (COVID-19) infection should be consulted for the latest information. Guidance for contacts of people with confirmed coronavirus (COVID-19) infection who do not live with the person contains further information for people who have been notified by NHS Test and Trace that they are a contact of a person who has had a positive test result for Covid-19 and who is not from that person’s household.

If symptoms worsen during home isolation, or if they are no better after 7 days, people should contact NHS 111 online. If without internet access they should call NHS 111. For a medical emergency they should dial 999. Those who are worried about their symptoms should avoid going directly to their GP, to a pharmacy or to a hospital.

People should plan ahead and ask others for help to ensure that they can successfully stay at home. Where necessary they should ask employers, friends and family to help them get the things they need.

National alert levels

The need for Covid-19 restrictions is based on the following national alert level system introduced by the Government in May 2020.

  • Level five (red) signifies a “material risk of healthcare services being overwhelmed” and requires extremely strict social distancing.

  • Level four signifies “a high or rising level of transmission” and requires enforced social distancing.

  • Level three (amber) describes the virus as being “in general circulation” but no longer high or rising exponentially — as a result, social distancing can be relaxed.

  • Level two describes the number of cases and transmission as being low — minimal social distancing is required.

  • Level one (green) will describe a situation where Covid-19 is no longer present in the UK and social distancing will no longer be required.

The Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC) has the task of recommending what the alert level should be.

Estimating the alert level involves calculation of an “R” value by public health experts. This value reflects the average number of people that a single person might infect on a daily basis.

The R value is typically expressed as a range. Therefore an R number between 1.1 and 1.3 means that on average every 10 people infected will infect between 11 and 13 other people. A growth rate between +2% and +4% means the number of new infections is growing by 2% to 4% every day.

The Government has stated that it wishes to keep the R value as close to 1 as possible. This means that the virus is not spreading and has been effectively suppressed.

Covid-19 public health restrictions

The government response throughout the Covid-19 pandemic has been to take necessary public health action to limit transmission of the virus by imposing a series of restrictions whenever the R number has grown too high and the alert level has had to be raised. These restrictions have included:

  • Regional and national lockdowns requiring people to stay at home, including working from home wherever possible

  • People observing “social distancing” and keeping at least 2 metres away from others not in the same household

  • Restrictions on travel, especially trips in and out of lockdown areas and international travel

  • Restrictions on gatherings and closures of places such as pubs, restaurants, cafes, schools and hairdressers

  • “Shielding” for the most vulnerable members of society.

The restrictions have been supported by legal enforcement, including spot fines for transgression. In addition, mask wearing has become mandatory in many indoor areas and on public transport and has become commonplace elsewhere as people have grown to accept the restrictions and protect themselves.

The first lockdown was imposed in March 2020 following the initial “first-wave” of infection. After a brief summer respite, a “second-wave” of infection swept through the UK at the end of the year as people moved indoors in colder weather and new more infectious Covid-19 variant strains emerged. NHS winter pressures exacerbated the situation and another national lockdown was announced from January 2021 following a dramatic increase in infection rates, hospitalisations and deaths. The lockdown was considered necessary despite the hopeful sign of vaccines becoming available and being rolled out across the country.

Roadmap out of lockdown

In February 2021 the Government in England published a roadmap for coming out of the lockdown. The plan was based on falling virus transmission rates and a successful vaccination rollout which saw huge numbers of adults having their Covid-19 vaccines.

Stage 1 in March saw the lockdown “stay at home rule” ended. Schools and colleges reopened and people from different households were able to meet outside for recreation again. Stage 2 in April and Stage 3 in May saw further restrictions lifted. Shops, hairdressers, gyms, restaurants and pubs were allowed to reopen and holidays and foreign travel resumed. People were allowed to meet in groups of up to 30 outdoors and six people or two households could meet indoors.

Stage 4 applies from 19 July and represents a relaxation of most formal legal restrictions, including social distancing. It was delayed from June by a rise in infection and hospitalisation rates driven by a new more transmissible Delta variant of the virus which has become established as the dominant strain worldwide. Despite this rise in infection the Government states that, with a significant proportion of the adult population already fully vaccinated, the balance of risks is such that a cautious return to near-normal life, without the majority of formal legal restrictions, is a reasonable position. However, people are still advised to be cautious.

Full details are provided on the GOV.UK webpage, (COVID-19) Coronavirus restrictions: what you can and cannot do.

While formal restrictions have ended, the Government states that people must recognise that Covid-19 remains a threat and urges them to maintain some preventative measures. Thus, under Step 4 people are no longer legally required to adhere to safety measures. Instead, the Government hopes that the majority of people will act sensibly out of informed choice and comply with sensible and proportionate public health recommendations.

The Government states that this will include the following:

  • wearing face coverings in crowded and enclosed spaces, such as public transport, and when mixing with people who do not normally meet

  • a gradual return to the workplace with employers following all necessary published guidance to keep people safe

  • organisations and large events being supported and encouraged to use Covid “pass” systems in high-risk settings to help limit the risk of infection in their venues.

The Government is urging people to:

  • get both doses of a vaccine when offered, and encourage others to do so as well

  • participate in local area surge testing as required, whether vaccinated or not

  • self-isolate immediately if symptomatic for Covid-19 or if testing positive for Covid-19.

Some areas of the UK have particularly high rates of the Delta virus variant and may be subject to additional local public health measures. In these areas people are encouraged to keep on with social distancing and meet outside rather than inside.

It should also be noted that, while they have worked closely together throughout the pandemic, different rules have been applied in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and the pattern of restrictions and easing of lockdown rules varies.

Clinically “extremely vulnerable” people

At the start of the pandemic the NHS identified certain people who were considered to be “high risk” from Covid-19 due to pre-existing health conditions. These people were described as “clinically extremely vulnerable” (CEV) and advised to “shield” and take special precautions to protect themselves from the virus.

Extremely vulnerable (high-risk) people include those who:

  • have had an organ transplant

  • are having chemotherapy for cancer, including immunotherapy

  • are having an intense course of radiotherapy for lung cancer

  • have a severe lung condition (such as severe asthma or severe COPD)

  • are taking medicine that makes them much more likely to get infections (such as high doses of steroids)

  • have a serious heart condition and are pregnant.

At the end of March 2021, the shielding scheme was paused as part of lockdown easing. From 19 July, as part of Stage 4 of the lockdown easing roadmap, the government advises that, at the very least, clinically extremely vulnerable people should follow the same guidance as everyone else. In addition, the government suggests that individuals may choose to limit the close contact they have with those they do not usually meet, particularly when Covid-19 disease levels in the general community are high.

Guidance on protecting people who are clinically extremely vulnerable from COVID-19 provides the latest information for England.

Everyone identified as vulnerable should already have been offered a Covid-19 vaccine and will hopefully be fully vaccinated. Such individuals are also urged to access a booster vaccine in the autumn when available.

Specific guidance for the education sector

The full range of Government guidance for schools and early years providers in England from the Department for Education (DfE) and Public Health England (PHE) can be found usefully grouped on the GOV.UK website. A wider collection of material can be found on the Education, universities and childcare Covid-19 webpage.

Schools coronavirus (COVID-19) operational guidance is the current official DfE advice for schools in England. It applies to all schools, including primary schools, secondary schools, academies, special schools and sixth forms. DfE state that they expect independent schools to follow the control measures set out in the guidance in the same way as state-funded schools.

Core guidance for early years providers in England can be found on the DfE webpage, Actions for early years and childcare providers during the COVID-19 pandemic. This covers early years provision in:

  • maintained schools

  • non-maintained schools

  • independent schools

  • all providers on the Ofsted early years register

  • all providers registered with an early years childminder agency.

Reception year groups will predominantly be covered by the schools guidance.

School closures and reopenings

As part of the pandemic response, schools in England were closed as part of the initial lockdown in March 2020, except for a partial service to support vulnerable children and the children of key workers. Exams were cancelled and support for home teaching was provided by teachers using online digital platforms. Schools reopened for the 2020 autumn term but were forced to close again during the 2021 January lockdown. Full school reopening was ordered as part of the lockdown easing roadmap from March 2020 when all pupils were expected to re-attend school wherever possible.

After the initial lockdown early years services have been kept open, wherever possible, throughout the pandemic. Their key role in child development and in enabling people to carry on working, including key workers, has been acknowledged and they have been considered low risk environments for both children and staff. Public Health England state that 0–5-year-olds have the lowest confirmed rates of Covid-19 infection and they are much less susceptible to severe illness.  

Similar approaches have been taken in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with some differences in the timing of closures and re-openings.

During the lockdown periods schools and early years have been urged by the government to remain open for vulnerable children and for the children of critical workers, such as health workers. Vulnerable children and young people included children who have a social worker or an education, health and care plan (EHCP). Full definitions were published in the online DfE guidance, Children of critical workers and vulnerable children who can access schools or educational settings.

For all other pupils, forced to remain at home, schools were asked to provide education for pupils through online remote learning and to support parents. Support for pupils unable to gain digital access to education was identified as a key priority during the second lockdown and schools were encouraged to consider them as vulnerable and to work to overcome any barriers. This included distributing school-owned laptops or supplementing digital provision with different forms of remote education, such as printed resources or textbooks.

Running schools safely during the pandemic

Schools COVID-19 operational guidance was refreshed from July 19 as part of the roadmap Stage 4 relaxation of restrictions. It has been updated again in preparation for the 2021 autumn term.

There are relatively few specific Covid measures required by the Government, compared with the reopening of schools in 2020. The remaining “active measures” relate to handwashing and hygiene, increased ventilation where possible, and in secondary schools and colleges testing for staff and pupils. Tests will be required only for staff in primary schools.

In the updated guidance, DfE no longer recommend keeping children in consistent groups (often referred to as “bubbles”) and social distancing is no longer required. This means that assemblies can resume and schools no longer need to make alternative arrangements to avoid mixing at lunch breaks, etc.

Revised guidance also applies to tracing close contacts and face coverings.

The end of the summer term was marked by large numbers of school pupils having to stay at home and isolate due to close contacts testing positive. However, DfE explain that settings only needed to do contact tracing up to and including 18 July. Going forward education settings will no longer be expected to undertake contact tracing and close contacts will be identified via NHS Test and Trace. Contacts from a school setting will only be traced by NHS Test and Trace where the positive case specifically identifies the individual as being a close contact. This should ensure that the unsustainable number of pupils needlessly self-isolating does not re-occur.

In addition, from 16 August 2021, those under the age of 18 years old are no longer required to self-isolate if they are contacted by NHS Test and Trace as a close contact of a positive Covid-19 case. Instead, children will be contacted by NHS Test and Trace, informed they have been in close contact with a positive case and advised to take a PCR test.

The main change regarding face coverings is that they are no longer advised for pupils, staff and visitors, either in classrooms or in communal areas. As part of the lockdown easing roadmap the requirement to wear face coverings in law has been removed. However, the Government expects and recommends that masks are worn in enclosed and crowded spaces where people may come into contact with others they do not normally meet. This includes public transport and dedicated transport to school or college.

Each school should have outbreak management plans outlining how they would operate if there were an outbreak in the school or local area. 

DfE state that outbreak management plans should cover the possibility that in some local areas it may become necessary to reintroduce “bubbles” for a temporary period, to reduce mixing between groups if virus transmission rates again increase dangerously. In addition, the temporary requirement for face coverings may also be reintroduced in certain circumstances, such as a local Covid outbreak.

Running early years safely during the pandemic

Actions for early years and childcare providers during the COVID-19 pandemic states that early years providers should work closely with parents, carers, staff and, where appropriate unions, when agreeing the best approaches for keeping everyone safe during the pandemic. Providers are required to comply with health and safety law and put proportionate control measures in place. They must keep risk assessments up to date and manage risk appropriately.

Earlier in the pandemic extensive use was made of “bubble” arrangements to limit mixing between groups of children and staff and workplace social distancing was a requirement. These arrangements are no longer recommended under the Stage 4 roadmap guidance applicable from 19 July. DfE advise that settings due to close for the summer may wish to continue with these measures until the end of the summer term.

As with schools, DfE advise early years providers to keep their contingency plans up to date and to be prepared to “step up” arrangements in the event of national or local action to control outbreaks. The Government position is that, following mass vaccination of the UK population, the country will have to learn to live with the Covid-19 coronavirus and that will require a flexible and targeted approach to managing the risks.

Risk assessments

During the pandemic every school and early years setting should have already carried out a risk assessment relating to the transmission of the Covid-19 coronavirus. These assessments should be kept updated and reviewed whenever there are significant changes. They should directly address the risks associated with coronavirus so that sensible safety measures can be put in place.

Reviews of risk assessments should include checking that mitigation measures are working as planned. It is particularly important to review risk assessments and carry out health and safety compliance checks before buildings are reopened after a period of closure.

A separately published annex to support schools in carrying out their assessments has been included in the core DfE document, Schools COVID-19 operational guidance. It includes advice on staff consultation and risk estimation and management.

It is important for school and early years employers to remember that all health and safety legal duties continue to apply during the pandemic and should remain a key consideration. Employers should continue to assess and update health and safety risks in the usual way during the pandemic, especially in the light of any changing circumstances. Every effort should be made to consult and keep people safe.

Recommended control measures in schools

DfE recommend that schools and early years settings operate with a number of defined control measures in place. In their guidance these have replaced the earlier more extensive “system of controls” originally introduced for reopening schools in Autumn 2020. The revised measures are much reduced and reflect the move away from stringently enforced restrictions towards targeted voluntary interventions to reduce risk. 

Measure 1. Ensure good hygiene for everyone

DfE recommend that everyone in school and early years settings should clean their hands regularly with soap and water or hand sanitiser. The “catch it, bin it, kill it” respiratory hygiene approach should be maintained and personal protective equipment (PPE) effective against infection should be used in compliance with guidance, such as Use of PPE in education, childcare and children’s social care. This covers PPE to be used when dealing with a symptomatic child, for instance.

Schools and early years should make sure enough washing facilities, tissues and bins are available to support their hygiene policies and procedures. Additional support should be provided to younger children and to those with complex needs.

Measure 2. Maintain appropriate cleaning regimes

Schools and early years should have in place appropriate cleaning schedules and arrangements. Schedules should include regular cleaning of areas and equipment (for example, twice per day), with a particular focus on frequently touched surfaces. When cleaning, standard products such as detergents and bleach should be used. These are known to be effective in removing the Covid-19 virus on surfaces.

Further information is provided in COVID-19: cleaning of non-healthcare settings outside the home.

Schedules should include the more frequent cleaning of toilets and handwashing areas.

Measure 3. Keep occupied spaces well ventilated

Ventilation is a key factor in reducing the risk of virus transmission in indoor areas. Schools and early years providers are advised to ensure that occupied spaces are well ventilated and that a comfortable indoors environment is maintained wherever possible. Poorly ventilated spaces should be identified as part of the Covid risk assessment and steps taken to improve fresh air flow. DfE suggest that windows should be opened and, where mechanical ventilation systems exist, schools and early years settings should ensure that they are maintained and operated in accordance with the manufacturers’ recommendations.

Schools and early years providers are advised to refer to Health & Safety Executive guidance, Ventilation and air conditioning during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Measure 4. Follow public health advice on testing, self-isolation and managing confirmed cases

DfE state that pupils, staff and other adults in a school and everyone involved in early years should follow the standard public health advice on when to self-isolate and how to do it. They should not come into school or attend an early years setting if they have Covid-19 symptoms, have had a positive test result or for any other reasons requiring them to stay at home due to the risk of them passing on the virus (for example, they are required to quarantine).

NHS Test and Trace will work with the positive case and/or their parent to identify close contacts. However, contacts from a school setting will only be traced in the small number of cases where the positive case and/or their parent specifically identifies the individual as being a close contact. 

The guidance states that individuals are not required to self-isolate if they live in the same household as someone with Covid-19, or are a close contact of someone with Covid-19, and any of the following apply:

  • they are fully vaccinated

  • they are below the age of 18 years and 6 months

  • they have taken part in or are currently part of an approved Covid-19 vaccine trial

  • they are not able to get vaccinated for medical reasons.

Instead, they will be contacted by NHS Test and Trace, informed they have been in close contact with a positive case and advised to take a PCR test

DfE have clarified that 18-year-olds will be treated in the same way as children until 6 months after their 18th birthday, to allow them the opportunity to get fully vaccinated. At this point, they will be subject to the same rules as adults and so if they choose not to get vaccinated, they will need to self-isolate if identified as a close contact.

If anyone in a school or early years setting develops Covid-19 symptoms, however mild, they should be sent home and told to follow public health advice. Any pupil or child with symptoms should avoid using public transport and, wherever possible, be collected by a member of their family or household.

If a pupil or child is awaiting collection, DfE advise that they are moved to a separate room or area. Staff should wear appropriate PPE used if close contact is necessary. A window should be opened for fresh air ventilation if possible and any rooms used should be cleaned after they have left. An older pupil in a school may be left in a room on their own if safe to do so.

The use of personal protective equipment (PPE) in education, childcare and children’s social care settings, including for aerosol generating procedures (AGPs) provides a range of guidance for dealing with pupils or adults with suspected infections on-site, including the personal protective equipment that staff should wear.

Covid-19 testing

Testing is a key area in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Two types of nasal/throat swab tests are available to detect the presence of the virus.

  • Lateral flow device (LFD) tests – a “rapid” nasal/throat swab test carried out at home or “on the spot” designed for those without symptoms to check they are not infected with the virus.

  • Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests – a nasal/throat swab test which is sent away to a laboratory to confirm Covid-19 in symptomatic individuals with the results usually returned in 24–48 hours.

Testing in the early stages of the pandemic was restricted to those in hospital. However, testing is seen as a key to coping with the pandemic and capacity has been massively scaled up to provide mass testing where needed, including schools.

Asymptomatic testing in schools

Asymptomatic testing refers to tests used to identify individuals who are infected with the Covid-19 virus but who do not display symptoms. Such individuals are capable of passing on the virus despite not being ill themselves.

DfE state that secondary schools should commence testing from 3 working days before the start of the autumn term and can stagger the return of pupils across the first week to manage this. Pupils should then continue to test twice weekly using LFD tests at home until the end of September, when DfE will review their guidance.

Both secondary and primary school staff should undertake twice weekly home tests whenever they are on site. Again, this guidance will be reviewed at the end of September.

DfE state that secondary schools should also retain a small asymptomatic testing site (ATS) on-site until further notice so they can offer testing to pupils who are unable to test themselves at home.

Confirmatory PCR tests in schools

Staff and pupils with a positive LFD test result are required to self-isolate in line with Government guidelines. They will also need to get a free PCR test to confirm if they have Covid-19 or not. Whilst awaiting the PCR result the individual should continue to self-isolate.

DfE explain that if the PCR test is taken within 2 days of the positive LFD test, and is negative, it overrides the LFD test and the pupil can return to school, as long as they do not have Covid-19 symptoms.

Additional information is available in Coronavirus (COVID-19): test kits for schools and FE providers.

Early years testing

According to DfE, early years staff should undertake twice weekly home tests whenever they are on site until the end of September, when this will be reviewed. In early years, as in schools, staff should continue to test regularly if they are attending settings that remain open over the summer. Regular testing will pause in settings that are closed. 

Early years children are not included in the rapid testing programme. PHE has advised there are limited public health benefits attached to testing early years children with rapid lateral flow coronavirus (Covid-19) tests

Contingency planning

Schools and early years settings are advised to have suitable contingency plans in place in case of local outbreaks or increases in Covid-19 virus transmission. They are advised to work closely with health protection teams and to be prepared by having what the guidance calls “stepping up and stepping down” measures in place.

Contingency framework: education and childcare settings is published by DfE to provide guidance.

School attendance

Schools COVID-19 operational guidance states that schools are safe for pupils to attend and all pupils of compulsory school age should attend.

Where a child is required to self-isolate or quarantine because of Covid-19 in accordance with relevant legislation or guidance, the guidance states that they should be recorded as code X (not attending in circumstances related to coronavirus). Where they are unable to attend because they have a confirmed case of Covid-19 they should be recorded as code I (illness).

The guidance states that all clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) children and young people should also attend their education setting unless they are one of the very small number of children and young people under paediatric or other specialist care who have been advised by their clinician or other specialist not to attend.

Face masks in schools and early years

According to Schools COVID-19 operational guidance, face coverings are no longer advised for pupils, staff and visitors either in classrooms or in communal areas.

The guidance states that the Government has removed the requirement to wear face coverings in law but expects and recommends that they are worn in enclosed and crowded spaces where people may come into contact with others they do not normally meet. This includes public transport and dedicated transport to school or college.

Circumstances where face coverings are recommended include where there is an outbreak in a school and a director of public health advises that face coverings should temporarily be worn in communal areas or classrooms (by pupils, staff and visitors, unless exempt). 

Where masks are used the guidance provides additional advice on the use of transparent face coverings which can aid communication, for example, enabling lip-reading or allowing for the full visibility of facial expressions.

Similar guidance applies in early years where the latest version of Actions for early years and childcare providers during the COVID-19 pandemic states that face coverings are no longer recommended for staff and visitors in corridors or communal areas. Face coverings were never recommended for children in early years.

Further information is available in the Government guidance, Face coverings: when to wear one, exemptions, and how to make your own.

School meals

Schools COVID-19 operational guidance states that schools should continue to provide free school meal support to any pupils who are eligible for benefits-related free school meals and who are learning at home during term time. This will include pupils who are self-isolating.

During lockdown periods schools have had to utilise different systems to ensure that such pupils have had access to meals. DfE guidance, Providing school meals during the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak, contains further advice and information.

SEND pupils

SEND pupils and those with education, health and care plans may need additional support during all stages of the pandemic. A small number of SEND pupils will be considered “high-risk” from Covid-19 and may need to be “shielded” during lockdown periods due to health conditions. Some that remain at home may need help to successfully access remote education while others may need additional support in school. Support should be provided according to individual needs and personalised educational healthcare plans.

Support for home learning

Schools should do all they can to support home learning when pupils cannot attend due to the coronavirus pandemic (ie, when self-isolating) or for health reasons. While staying at home due to coronavirus, parents and carers may be worried about their children's development and the effect of missing school or nursery.

During lockdown periods schools were required to provide access to remote education for all of those pupils who had to stay at home. Schools coronavirus (COVID-19) operational guidance states that schools should maintain their capacity to deliver “high-quality remote education” for the next academic year. This includes provision for pupils who are abroad and face challenges to return to the UK due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.

DfE specify that any remote education provided should be “equivalent in length” to the core teaching pupils would receive in school.

In early years settings Actions for early years and childcare providers during the COVID-19 pandemic states that providers should try to stay in touch with parents or carers whose child is forced to remain at home for an extended period due to the virus. Providers should consider how best to support such children, especially if there may be welfare or safeguarding issues involved.

Catch-up learning for schools

It is acknowledged that, despite the incredible efforts of teachers and parents during school closure periods, some pupils will inevitably need to catch up on lost education time if they are to achieve their potential. A number of catch-up programmes have been developed and funded, including the Catch-up Premium scheme. A list of resources are included in the DfE publication, Education recovery.

Full details of the catch-up premium scheme can be found here.

Workforce considerations

As with all sections of society, Covid-19 has placed huge pressures on the education and early years workforce who have worked hard to keep their essential services open throughout the pandemic. In particular, high sickness and absence rates due to illness and self-isolation have led to significant staff issues.

Schools coronavirus (COVID-19) operational guidance places responsibility onto school leaders to determine their own local workforce needs for each school.

During lockdown periods many school staff will have been required to work from home. However, both school and early years staff have now been back in the workplace for some time and have worked hard to ensure that their settings are as safe as possible.

Stage 4 of the lockdown easing roadmap means that from 19 July it is no longer necessary for the government to instruct people to work from home and social distancing measures in the workplace are no longer mandated. Individual employers in all sectors must decide on the safety measures that are appropriate to take for their workplace and should refer to Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance on how to reduce any residual risk and keep their staff safe.

HSE guidance includes the following webpages:

Key concerns during the easing of restrictions and a return to “normal” patterns of working have been for those staff who have been considered extremely clinically vulnerable (CEV) and advised by the NHS to “shield” themselves during the pandemic.

“Shielding” formally ended in March 2021 and the advice to clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) people after Stage 4 of the lockdown easing roadmap is to follow the same guidance as everyone else, as a minimum. They may also wish to take additional safety precautions and discuss these with their employer. Advice for employers is provided in COVID-19: guidance on protecting people defined on medical grounds as extremely vulnerable. Where necessary occupational health services may offer additional support.

Pregnant staff should follow the guidance set out in Coronavirus (COVID-19): advice for pregnant employees. Workplace risk assessments covering pregnant staff should be updated in line with current health and safety law. Any risks identified should be effectively managed in consultation with the member of staff concerned. This may include risk mitigation measures such as working from home.

Behaviour, discipline and wellbeing

The DfE guidance warns that some school pupils may be experiencing a variety of emotions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, such as anxiety, stress or low mood. 

Previous versions of the guidance pointed out that schools must have clear policies in place which provide reasonable and proportionate expectations of pupil behaviour. DfE warned that the lack of routine and classroom discipline caused during lockdowns may have contributed to disengagement for some pupils returning to school. This could result in an increase in poor behaviour.

In addition, to anxiety and stress, some children may also have experienced bereavement, particularly the loss of family, and in some cases, increased welfare and safeguarding harms.

Extra pastoral support should be provided for pupils in schools where wellbeing or safeguarding concerns are identified. Additionally, provision for pupils who have SEND may have been disrupted during the period of restrictions on attendance and there may be an impact on their behaviour too.

Support should be provided by school nurses, where they are in place, to ensure that healthcare needs are met.

School trips

School trips and education visits of all types were banned in England during the 2021 lockdown. From 12 April, domestic day trips and educational visits were reinstated as part of the lockdown easing roadmap. Domestic residential educational visits were reinstated in line with step 3. Any visits must be conducted with appropriate risk assessments in place and with adequate Covid-secure safety precautions. DfE also advise that, given the likely gap in Covid-19 related cancellation insurance, any new bookings must have adequate financial protection in place.

International visits are more complex. DfE advise that, from the start of the autumn 2021 term, schools can proceed with international visits that have previously been deferred or postponed. They can also organise new international visits for the future. However, schools are warned to be aware that the travel list – which assigns countries red, amber or green status — can change suddenly and they need to comply fully with subsequent Covid-19 related travel restrictions. Schools are advised by DfE to speak to either their visit provider, commercial insurance company, or the risk protection arrangement (RPA) to assess the protection available. 

Up to date advice on foreign travel is available from the Department of Transport, Red, amber and green list rules for entering England. School employers should be aware of the latest quarantine rules if they have staff who are travelling abroad. It has not been unknown for people to be temporarily stranded abroad by Covid outbreaks and sudden changes in list status.

School inspections

Formal school inspections were cancelled by Ofsted at the start of the pandemic. A programme of “support visits” was reintroduced when schools reopened, targeted at schools most in need of support.

For state funded schools, Ofsted have announced that a full programme of inspections will resume from September 2021. They will continue to prioritise schools most in need of inspection but aim to inspect every state-funded school within the next 5 academic years.

For independent schools (other than academies), the relevant inspectorates have also announced a return to a full programme of routine inspections.

Vaccine development and roll out

Many vaccines have now been developed. In the UK a number of vaccines have now been approved for use by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). These include:

  • a vaccine developed by the drug companies Pfizer and BioNTech in the USA/Germany

  • a vaccine developed by Moderna in the United States

  • a vaccine developed jointly by Oxford University and AstraZeneca.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have both been shown to be about 95% effective, effectiveness being a measure of the vaccines ability to create an immune response and confer immunity against the Covid-19 virus. The AstraZeneca (AZ) vaccine has a 70–90% effectiveness depending on the dose.

The majority of adults in the UK should have by now been offered vaccination.

A strategy setting out priority groups for the vaccination roll-out was developed in December 2020 by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, the expert advisory group for vaccination in the UK. According to the strategy, Advice on Priority Groups for COVID-19 Vaccination, the most vulnerable were prioritised in Phase 1 of the vaccination programme. In addition to the most vulnerable, Phase 1 also covered all health and social care staff and all adults over 50. It was completed at the start of the summer 2021. Adults aged 18 to 50 are covered in Phase 2, which public health agencies hope will be completed in the autumn. Schools and early years employers should support and encourage all of their staff to access the vaccination programme when offered and if eligible. This will provide them with their best protection against Covid-19, protecting them both against infection and from the severity of symptoms if they become ill. There is evidence that vaccination also helps prevent the spread of the virus. Those that have concerns about vaccination should be encouraged to discuss their issues with their GP.

Young people aged 16 and 17 were added to the vaccination programme in the summer and are currently being contacted by the NHS for their jabs. Some children aged 12 to 15 can be vaccinated where they have a condition that means they are at high risk from Covid-19 or where they live with someone who is more likely to get infections. The government is known to have considered offering vaccines to all children aged 12 and over. However, this is not current policy.

More information, and access to the national booking service, can be found on the NHS Coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine webpage.

The currently used vaccines require 2 injections. People are not fully vaccinated until they have had both jabs. The vaccination plan supports the JCVI strategy for prioritising the first dose of the vaccines. It states that prioritising the first doses of vaccine for as many people as possible will protect the greatest number of people overall in the shortest possible time.

Further information about the vaccination programme can be found in the UK COVID-19 Vaccines Delivery Plan.

The UK vaccination programme is entirely voluntary. WHO take the position that persuading people on the merits of a Covid-19 vaccine is far more effective than trying to make the jabs mandatory.

Vaccination programmes are being rolled out around the world in the face of opposition from “anti-vaxxer” groups and social media misinformation which have increased fears and made some people hesitant and worried that a vaccine can be safe in the current pandemic. That said, the vaccine programme in the UK has proved very popular and in most areas uptake has been extremely high. Areas where compliance is low have been targeted with additional public health resources to ensure that local communities have sufficient factual information about the benefits of vaccination.

Plans for a proposed “third jab” booster Covid-vaccine can be found in the document, JCVI interim advice on a potential coronavirus (COVID-19) booster vaccine programme for winter 2021 to 2022. If this is implemented it will be initially targeted at higher-risk vulnerable individuals and then at all those covered in Phase 1 of the JCVI plan.

Where can the latest information be found?

School leaders and early years managers should keep as up to date as possible and ensure that staff and parents are informed.

The following official sources can be used:

People are warned to avoid misinformation and out of date information. Guidance has changed rapidly throughout the outbreak. It may also vary according to where in the UK people live. Always refer to the latest official Government information.