Last reviewed 18 January 2021

What is coronavirus and 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.

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 14 days. This means that if a person remains well 14 days after contact with someone with confirmed coronavirus, they have not been infected.

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.

People who are infected but do not show symptoms are described as “asymptomatic”. It is thought that as many as 1 in 3 people may be asymptomatic in some areas.

How can people protect themselves?

Public Health England (PHE) recommends that the following general “handwashing and respiratory hygiene” precautions are taken to help prevent spreading coronavirus:

  • 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, the Government is asking people to “self-isolate” if they have symptoms of Covid-19, to stay at home whenever possible and to “socially distance” themselves.

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 14 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 14-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 who are contacted by NHS Test and Trace must follow isolation guidance provided by contact tracers.

Those who are symptomatic are advised to:

  • stay at least 2 metres (about 3 steps) away from other people in the home whenever possible

  • sleep alone, if possible

  • wash hands regularly for 20 seconds, each time using soap and water

  • stay away from vulnerable individuals such as the elderly and those with underlying health conditions as much as possible

  • keep hydrated and use over the counter medications, such as paracetamol, to help with the symptoms.

If symptoms worsen during home isolation, or if they are no better after 7 days, they 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.

Stay at home: guidance for households with possible or confirmed coronavirus (COVID-19) infection, published by Public Health England, contains further advice.

Lockdown and social distancing

In March, the Government announced a countrywide “lockdown” with the temporary closure of places where people gather and meet, such as pubs, clubs, restaurants, cafes, non-food shops, gyms, cinemas, churches and leisure centres. Schools and early years childcare were also closed with a partial service remaining open to support certain children. People were urged not to travel and to stay at home. They were permitted to go outside only when shopping for necessities, such as food and medicine, for medical or care needs, for example to help a vulnerable person, and to exercise once a day.

Essential workers, such as doctors, nurses, care staff and those involved in food production and supply, were allowed to travel to work. Non-essential workers were asked to stay at home. Those that could run their businesses from home were encouraged to.

People staying home were advised not have visitors, not even from friends or family. Those that did venture out were asked to do so for only short periods and to go straight home afterwards. While out they were asked to observe “social distancing” rules. This involves keeping a safe distance of at least 2 metres from others not in the same household.

Vulnerable people, including those aged 70 and over, were advised to be particularly stringent in staying at home and following social distancing measures when outside. They are far more vulnerable than younger people if they contract the virus. Their best defence is to keep away from others and stay at home. This includes visits from friends and family.

The lockdown measures were considered essential to halt the spread of the virus between people and prevent illness, thus reducing pressure on hard pressed NHS and social care services. They were supported by changes to the law and enforced by the police who were given powers to impose fines on people breaking the movement restrictions.

National alert levels

In May 2020 the Government introduced an alert level system to help warn people about the degree of threat faced by the country and to guide its decisions relating to restrictions.

There are five levels.

  • 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.

Lockdown easing

In May 2020 the prime minister announced that the measures had been successful enough to consider a phased easing of the lockdown. People were warned to “stay alert” when outside, to maintain social distancing and to continue washing their hands more often.

The announcement to ease the lockdown restrictions was followed by publication of a “roadmap” to eventually return to “as near normal” as possible. A key feature of this was the gradual return of people to work when safe to do so and the development of “Covid secure” workplaces and services.

It should be noted that, while they have worked closely together throughout the pandemic, different roadmaps out of lockdown were applied in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and the pattern of restrictions has varied from place to place.

In June, shops reopened and the rules for meeting up with people from outside of a household were changed.

  • People were able to meet outdoors in a group of up to six people (the “rule of 6”).

  • Single adult households could form a “support bubble” with one other household — members of the bubble were allowed to spend time in each other’s homes and stay overnight.

Further relaxations followed as the national alert level was reduced from four to three and the national R value was reduced to close to 1.

For instance, in July people were allowed to meet in groups of up to two households and businesses such as hairdressers, pubs, restaurants, hotels and cafes reopened with strict safety guidelines in place. Where it was not possible to stay two metres apart a new social distancing rule of “one metre plus” was introduced. This involved staying one metre apart while observing “additional mitigation” precautions such as wearing a mask. Mask wearing was also made compulsory in many indoor spaces and when using public transport.

During the summer people resumed holiday flights abroad to safe destinations and in September children and young people returned to schools and higher education.

Autumn/winter pressures

Despite all efforts to suppress virus transmission a widely anticipated increase in infection rates occurred throughout Europe and the UK in the autumn of 2020. This “second wave” seems to be caused by a number of factors, including people moving indoors in colder weather and what is referred to as “compliance fatigue” as populations grow tired of restrictions.

In the UK local and regional transmission rates were closely monitored and “hotspot” areas identified. Restrictions were subsequently reintroduced on a locality basis. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland imposed so-called “circuit break” lockdowns while England developed a strategy based on a three tier system of local restrictions which were applied according to transmission rates in different areas.

By November it was clear that the regional restrictions were proving insufficient to stem the second wave surge and a four-week lockdown was reimposed. This was followed by the reallocation of local tiers.

A proposed Christmas easing was abandoned amid a surge of transmission rates in London and South East counties driven by the emergence of a new more infectious Covid-19 variant strain, B117. Further restrictions were announced, including a Tier 4 “stay at home” order for affected areas.

Despite being easier to catch than the standard Covid-19 virus, Public Health England has stated that any resultant illness from the new coronavirus mutation appears to be no more severe. However, the variant is estimated to be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than original strains of the virus, raising the “R value” dramatically and spreading rapidly. It is therefore viewed the variant as a very significant threat.

Reopening schools in January for the 2021 spring term was also abandoned, the Government acknowledging that schools in hard hit “contingency areas” in England could remain closed for some time, although services will be maintained for the children of key workers, as in the original 2020 lockdown, and for vulnerable children. Pupils having to remain at home should be taught by remote learning.

The lockdown will be kept under review. However, it is expected to remain in place for the foreseeable future while Covid-19 vaccines are rolled out. Restrictions are similar to the 2020 March lockdown with people asked to stay at home wherever possible.

“Moderate-risk” and “high-risk” individuals

Since the start of the pandemic, Public Health England has recognised two categories of people who are considered to be more at risk of serious illness from Covid-19 infection than others, those who are at moderate risk (vulnerable) and those who are at high risk (extremely vulnerable).

NHS guidance is available here.

Vulnerable (moderate-risk) people include those who:

  • are 70 or older

  • are pregnant

  • have a lung condition such as asthma, COPD, emphysema or bronchitis (not severe)

  • have heart disease, diabetes, chronic kidney disease or liver disease (such as hepatitis)

  • are taking medicine that can affect the immune system (such as low doses of steroids)

  • are very obese.

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.

Since the start of the pandemic, those in the “moderate-risk” (vulnerable) category have been advised to be cautious and stay at home as much as possible. They can go to work if they cannot work from home but should be very careful to comply with social distancing and handwashing advice.

During the height of the pandemic those in the “high-risk” (extremely vulnerable) category were made subject to special “shielding” arrangements. This involved people being advised to self-isolate and not to leave home for any reason wherever possible.

As part of the general lockdown easing process the need for shielding was re-evaluated and in August the scheme was paused. As with people at moderate risk, shielded individuals were free to return to a Covid-safe workplace, if they could not work from home, and to go out for shopping and exercise. However, they were advised to be careful in taking precautions.

During November high-risk individuals in England were made subject to the same lockdown restrictions as everyone else. However, with the emergence of the more transmissible coronavirus strain in the UK in December shielding was reinstated in areas subject to “tier 4” restrictions and then as part of the 2021 national lockdown.

The Government webpage Guidance on Shielding and Protecting People Defined on Medical Grounds as Extremely Vulnerable from COVID-19 has been kept updated as the pandemic has progressed.

Specific guidance for the education sector

The full range of Government guidance for schools and early years providers from the Department for Education (DfE) and Public Health England (PHE) can be found usefully grouped on the GOV.UK website.

Schools and early years settings 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. The parents of children who did not fall into these priority groups were asked to keep them at home and provide appropriate care and home teaching. Exams were cancelled and support for home teaching was provided by teachers using online digital platforms.

Schools were reopened for the 2020 autumn term when virus transmission rates were felt to be sufficiently reduced and mitigated by “Covid-safe” actions by schools to ensure safety. These stressed the importance of keeping both staff, children and young people safe by supporting social distancing, personal hygiene and environmental cleaning.

However, following the autumn “second wave” and spike of infection over the Christmas and New Year period the Department for Education announced that schools must again close for the 2021 spring term, until the February half term at least. Exceptions are early years provision, which must remain open, and those schools providing places for the children of key workers and for vulnerable children.

Guidance for schools in England has been published by DfE. Restricting attendance during the national lockdown: schools, published in January 2021, applies to schools of all types. It summarises the “Covid-safe” system of controls that were published previously for schools that remain open. It also includes new information on testing, free school meals, remote education and inspections.

Similar approaches have been taken in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Staying open during lockdown

Restricting attendance during the national lockdown: schools states that during the period of national lockdown starting in January 2021, schools, alternative provision (AP), special schools, colleges and wraparound childcare and other out-of-school activities for children should allow and strongly encourage vulnerable children and young people and the children of critical workers to attend. All other pupils and students should not attend. They should stay at home, learning remotely.

The following definitions apply:

  • Critical workers are defined as those whose work is critical to the coronavirus and EU transition response, including those who work in health and social care and in other key sectors

  • The definition of vulnerable children and young people includes children who have a social worker, an education, health and care plan (EHCP) or who may be vulnerable for another reason at local discretion

Full definitions can be found in the online DfE guidance, Children of critical workers and vulnerable children who can access schools or educational settings, updated in January 2021. The list includes those who have difficulty engaging with remote education at home.

There have been concerns that, in the early stages of the 2021 lockdown, schools have seen significant numbers of pupils attending who are considered as vulnerable because they do not have access to digital devices in the home which enable them to engage with online learning. DfE have stated that, where pupils continue to experience barriers to digital remote education, they expect schools to work to overcome these barriers. This could include distributing school-owned laptops or supplementing digital provision with different forms of remote education, such as printed resources or textbooks.

Where vulnerable children and young people do not attend, schools are advised to work together with the local authority and social worker (where applicable) to follow up with the parent or carer and explore the reason for absence.

Regardless of setting, schools are encouraged to work collaboratively with other schools and education providers and other local partners to maximise opportunities for face-to face provision for vulnerable children.

DfE state that they expect schools to operate for their normal hours. Where necessary they also encourage breakfast club and after school provision to help support the children of critical workers.

School workforce deployment during lockdown

During the period of national lockdown the expectation of the government is that everybody should work from home where possible.

Restricting attendance during the national lockdown: schools states that school leaders are best placed to determine the workforce that is required in school, both to staff schools that remain open for vulnerable children and the children of key workers, and to provide home learning for other children and young people. DfE state that the expectation is that those staff not attending school will work from home where possible.

The guidance states that schools which implement the recommended system of Covid-19 controls are not considered high risk settings when compared to other workplace environments.

School leaders are urged to take into account the reintroduction of “shielding” during the lockdown for those staff who are considered clinically extremely vulnerable (or “high risk”). Under this arrangement extremely vulnerable people are advised not to attend a workplace. Schools should identify any staff who fall into this category and discuss their working arrangements with them, supporting them to work from home accordingly.

School staff who are vulnerable (or “moderate risk”) can continue to attend school sites that remain open where it is not possible to work from home. However, while in school they are advised to take particular care to observe good hand and respiratory hygiene, minimising contact and maintaining social distancing, and to follow sector-specific “Covid-safe” measures.

Pregnant school staff are advised to work at home where possible.

Schools are advised that during lockdown they may need to alter the way in which they deploy their staff, and use existing staff more flexibly. While operating during national lockdown governing boards and school leaders are required to have regard for staff work-life balance and wellbeing, including that of the headteacher.

Schools can continue to engage supply teachers and other supply staff during lockdown.

Running a school during the coronavirus pandemic

Acknowledging the importance of education in the lives of children, families and young people, the government has sought to keep schools wherever possible during the coronavirus pandemic. It has been the contention of the government throughout that, as long as schools have appropriate mitigation measures in place, they are essentially safe places to work and study in.

Whether they are open only for vulnerable children and children of key workers during times of national lockdown, or open for all children at other times during the pandemic, schools must have in place a range of measures designed to lower the risk of Covid-19 virus transmission both for staff and for pupils and visitors. These protective measures must include appropriate risk assessment and the “system of controls” recommended by Public Health England and described by DfE in their guidance.

Risk assessment

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.

The system of controls: protective measures

The system of controls recommended and endorsed by Public Health England was originally introduced in the guidance for reopening schools in Autumn 2020. These emerged from successful measures undertaken by schools remaining open in the original national lockdown.

The system of controls are reinforced in Restricting attendance during the national lockdown: schools.

In terms of prevention of virus transmission, the following measures must be in place:

  1. Minimise contact with individuals who are unwell by ensuring that those who are required to stay at home do not attend school

  2. Where recommended, the use of face coverings in schools

  3. Clean hands thoroughly more often than usual

  4. Ensure good respiratory hygiene by promoting the “catch it, bin it, kill it” approach

  5. Introduce enhanced cleaning, including cleaning frequently touched surfaces often, using standard products such as detergents

  6. Minimise contact between individuals and maintain social distancing wherever possible

  7. Where necessary, wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE)

  8. Always keeping occupied spaces well ventilated

    DfE state that measures 1 to 5, and number 8, must be in place in all schools, all the time. Measure number 6 must be properly considered and schools must put in place measures that suit their particular circumstances. Number 7 applies in specific circumstances.

    In terms of the response to any cases of infection, the following measures must be in place:

  9. Engage with the NHS Test and Trace process

  10. Manage confirmed cases of coronavirus (Covid-19) amongst the school community

  11. Contain any outbreak by following local health protection team advice

    DfE specify that measure numbers 9 to 11 must be followed in every case where they are relevant.

Minimising contact between people

The DfE guidance states that schools must do “everything possible” to minimise contacts between people while delivering a broad and balanced curriculum.

Reducing contact minimises the risks that individuals will transfer the virus between them. This is a key element in reducing virus transmission and the basis behind social distancing. Individual schools must decide how best to implement this in their settings.

During lockdown, whilst schools are attended by vulnerable children and the children of critical workers only, they are advised to keep group sizes small. Younger children can be taught in “bubbles” with groups kept separate from each other. Older children should be supported to maintain distance and not touch staff where possible.

DfE state that there are a wide range of organisational arrangements that should allow schools to reduce contacts between people while in school, both during lockdown and at times when there are fewer restrictions. DfE guidance points out that the exact methods used will depend on the type of school (i.e. primary or secondary) and the schools particular and unique circumstances.

Suggested arrangements include:

  • grouping children together

  • avoiding contact between groups

  • arranging classrooms with forward facing desks

  • staff maintaining distance from pupils and other staff as much as possible.

For younger children, the DfE state that an emphasis on groups will usually be most effective. The consistent grouping of children should reduce the risk of transmission by limiting the number of pupils and staff in contact with each other to only those within each group. Schools must address the logistical and timetabling challenges that such group arrangements will inevitably bring.

For older children and young people, the DfE state that there should be more emphasis on social distancing and personal responsibility to comply with public health messages. Such an approach should be supported by classroom adaptations. Staff in secondary schools should be supported to maintain distance from their pupils, staying at the front of the class, and away from their colleagues where possible. Ideally, adults should maintain the 2 metre “social distance” from each other, and from children.

Providing Covid-safe facilities

School premises should be adapted and reorganised to facilitate social distancing and group separation wherever appropriate. Cleaning schedules should be increased and additional hand hygiene facilities provided.

Premises adaptations should include measures to increase ventilation where possible. Natural ventilation will include the opening of windows and doors, except for fire doors. Mechanical ventilation systems should be adjusted to increase the ventilation rate using fresh rather than recirculated air.

Schools must ensure that adequate hand hygiene facilities are in place, ie handwashing facilities and/or hand sanitiser. Staff and pupils must be able to clean their hands regularly, including when they arrive in school. Hand cleaning “routines” may be introduced. Additional facilities may be required to avoid over-crowding in wash areas. Hand sanitiser use should be supervised to prevent risks related to ingestion.

Enhanced cleaning schedules should cover all frequently touched surfaces. This should include:

  • door handles

  • handrails

  • table tops

  • play equipment

  • toys

  • electronic devices (such as phones).

Schedules should also include the more frequent cleaning of toilets and handwashing areas. When cleaning, schools are advised to use the standard products such as detergents and bleach. These are known to be effective in removing the Covid-19 virus on surfaces.

Schools should consult Covid-19: cleaning in non-healthcare settings outside the home for further guidance.

Face masks

Advice from the World Health Organization suggests that wearing masks or face coverings is a sensible measure to take in order to reduce virus transmission. Mask or face coverings have therefore become mandatory in many places, such as in shops and on public transport. Many people have also taken to wearing masks in a wide range of settings, especially where they cannot maintain a 2 metre social distance.

In August, further guidance was issued by WHO advising that “children aged 12 and over should wear a mask under the same conditions as adults, in particular when they cannot guarantee at least a 1-metre distance from others and there is widespread transmission in the area.”

Updated guidance was duly published by DfE applicable from the start of the September 2020 term. Face coverings in education states that schools and colleges that teach years 7 and above will have the discretion to require face coverings in indoor communal areas where social distancing cannot be safely managed, if they believe that it is right in their particular circumstances. Examples of where face coverings are appropriate include:

  • where the layout of a school makes it particularly difficult to maintain social distancing

  • where permitting the use of face coverings for staff, pupils or other visitors would provide additional confidence to parents to support a full return of children to school on top of hygiene measures and other controls.

The guidance was updated again prior to the January 2021 national lockdown. It states that, during such periods, in education settings where year 7 and above are educated, face coverings should be worn by adults (staff and visitors) and pupils when moving around indoors, such as in corridors and communal areas. As in the general approach, the guidance states that it will not usually be necessary to wear face coverings in the classroom, where protective measures already mean the risks are lower, and they may inhibit teaching and learning.

In primary schools where social distancing is not possible in indoor areas outside of classrooms between members of staff or visitors, for example in staffrooms, headteachers will have the discretion to decide whether to ask staff or visitors to wear, or agree to them wearing face coverings in these circumstances. Where face coverings are required it is vital that they are worn correctly. Clear instructions must be provided to staff, children and young people on how to put on, remove, store and dispose of face coverings to avoid inadvertently increasing the risks of transmission.

The DfE acknowledge that some individuals may be exempt from wearing face coverings, eg people who cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability.

School transport, drop-off and pick-up

Schools must have appropriate school transport, arrival and pick-up arrangements in place.

During the 2021 national lockdown the government has advised that school transport will remain in place for those pupils still attending. Those involved in its provision are required to do all that is reasonably practicable to maximise social distancing wherever possible. All children and young people aged 11 and over must wear a face covering when travelling on dedicated transport to secondary school.

DfE guidance, Transport to school and other places of education: 2020 to 2021 academic year, remains unchanged.

As part of efforts to encourage social distancing and discourage crowded situations on buses and at school gates, general advice during the Covid-19 pandemic is that schools consider having staggered start and finish times where necessary. This may help to keep groups apart as they arrive and leave.

It should be noted that transport capacity will be affected by the need for social distancing on buses and coaches, etc. Schools should work closely with transport providers and with local authorities to ensure adequate capacity.

Regarding the journey to school, children are being asked to travel by foot, bike or car, avoiding public transport as much as possible. They should be accompanied by just one parent or carer.

Illness on-site and dealing with positive Covid-19 cases

Schools must have robust systems in place to deal with anyone in the school community testing positive for Covid-19 and to ensure that anyone developing coronavirus symptoms during the school day is sent home.

Restricting attendance during the national lockdown: schools states that schools must take swift action when they become aware that someone who has attended has tested positive for coronavirus. In such cases schools will need to identify those who have been in close contact with the person who has tested positive and advising them to self-isolate. The guidance provides a DfE helpline (0800 046 8687) for advice on dealing with cases. The advice service (or PHE local health protection team if escalated) will provide advice on who must be sent home.

Secondary schools participating in a rapid asymptomatic testing programme should follow the Mass asymptomatic testing: schools and colleges guidance to ensure contacts of the positive case are tested.

If anyone in an education or childcare setting becomes unwell with a new, continuous cough or a high temperature, or has a loss of, or change in, their normal sense of taste of smell (anosmia), they must be sent home and advised to follow Government guidance on self-isolating. If a child is awaiting collection, they should be moved, if possible, to a room where they can be isolated behind a closed door, depending on the age of the child and with appropriate adult supervision if required.

If schools have two or more confirmed cases within 10 days, or an overall rise in sickness absence where Covid-19 is suspected, they may have an outbreak and must continue to work with their local health protection team who will advise if additional action is required.

Safe working in education, childcare and children's social care settings, including the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) 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.

In an emergency, call 999 if a pupil or adult is seriously ill or injured or their life is at risk. Do not visit the GP, pharmacy, urgent care centre or a hospital.

First aid should be delivered with reference to the latest safeguards from the Resuscitation Council UK.

Covid-19: cleaning in non-healthcare settings outside the home provides further guidance on cleaning after a suspected case of Covid-19 has been present.

Where individuals who are self-isolating at home fall within the definition of “vulnerable” it is important that schools put systems in place to keep in contact with them, offer pastoral support, and check they are able to access education support.

School meals

Providing school meals during the coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak describes what schools need to do to ensure that pupils have appropriate access to food and drink during the pandemic. This includes arrangements during nationwide lockdowns to ensure that those pupils and young people who rely on free school meals can still access help despite having to stay at home.

Schools that remain open during lockdown are advised to work with their catering teams to ensure that vulnerable children and the children of critical workers are provided with appropriate meals. Under normal circumstances, schools do not provide free school meals to eligible children who are not in school. However, during lockdown periods they will be expected to support eligible children, for example, with food parcels or with vouchers redeemable at local shops or supermarkets.

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 special attention while others may need additional support to return to school during lockdown if they are eligible to do so.

Support for home learning

Schools should do all they can to support home learning when pupils cannot attend due to the coronavirus pandemic 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.

Restricting attendance during the national lockdown: schools describes the application of the Coronavirus Act 2020 Provision of Remote Education (England) Temporary Continuity Direction which imposes a duty on schools to provide remote education for state-funded, school-age children whose attendance would be contrary to government guidance or law around coronavirus (Covid-19).

According to the guidance the remote education provided should:

  • be equivalent in length to the core teaching pupils would receive in school

  • include both recorded or live direct teaching time

  • should include time for pupils to complete tasks and assignments independently

DfE state the amount of remote education provided should be, as a minimum:

  • Key Stage 1: 3 hours a day on average across the cohort, with less for younger children

  • Key Stage 2: 4 hours a day

  • Key Stages 3 and 4: 5 hours a day

The guidance points out that Ofsted will inspect schools of any grade where there are significant concerns about the quality of remote education being provided. During the spring term they will conduct monitoring inspections of schools most in need of challenge and support.

Staff health and safety

Staff health and safety should be a key consideration in all schools. Every effort should be made to consult and keep people safe. The Government expert advisory group believes schools are a low risk setting, especially at the present time when Covid-19 virus transmission rates are much reduced.

During the 2020 autumn term, as schools reopened, the group advised that staff who were considered high-risk or “extremely vulnerable” due to underlying health conditions during the height of the pandemic, should be safe to return to work provided the necessary “essential controls” were in place. They were advised to take particular care to observe good hand hygiene and social distancing.

However, the “shielding” arrangements designed to keep extremely vulnerable people safe were reinstated during the January 2021 national lockdown. Under this arrangements “shielded” individuals were advised not to return to work but to stay at home.

School trips

During the original 2020 national lockdown no educational visits of any type were permitted. In the summer this was relaxed. Non-overnight domestic educational visits were resumed, with appropriate risk assessments and Covid-safe measures in place.

During the 2021 national lockdown the DfE once again advised against educational visits of any kind.


Formal inspections were cancelled at the start of the pandemic. Ofsted announced a programme of support “visits” to schools in England when they reopened in the autumn. These are not formal inspections and no grading is made. The aim of the visits is to reassure the public about how schools and colleges are managing to reopen safely.

Ofsted do not intend to reintroduce routine graded inspections until the summer term 2021. During the spring term Ofsted state that inspectors will conduct monitoring inspections in schools most in need of support, particularly inadequate schools and some schools that require improvement. The focus will be on matters relevant at the time, such as curriculum and teaching (including remote education), and attendance, particularly of vulnerable pupils.

Travel advice

Travelling is now much reduced due to countries around the world closing their borders to protect themselves against different strains of coronavirus being introduced into the country by international travellers. Government advice during the national lockdown is that people must not leave home or travel, including internationally, unless they have a legally permitted reason to do so.

Those that do travel are subject to a number of restrictions and rules.

From 18 January 2021 those who intend to travel to England, Scotland, or Wales, and UK nationals returning home from travel abroad, must provide evidence of a negative Covid-19 test result taken up to 3 days before departure. They must also self-isolate when they enter the UK from any foreign country except Ireland, unless they have a valid exemption.

Testing, tracking and tracing

Schools must ensure that staff understand and engage with the NHS Test and Trace process.

A nasal/throat swab test is available to confirm the presence of the virus.

2 types of tests are routinely used:

  • polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests – a nasal/throat swab is taken which is then tested in a laboratory and results returned usually in 24 – 48 hours

  • lateral flow device (LFD) tests – rapid tests designed for those without symptoms to detect if they are infected

Testing in the early stages of the pandemic was restricted to those in hospital. However, testing is seen as key to coping with the crisis and capacity has been scaled up to enable many more people to have access, including anybody who thinks they have symptoms. Key workers in health and social care, or people who live with them, are prioritised.

Tests can be performed in regional drive through centres or via home testing kits. Coronavirus (Covid-19): getting tested provides details of how to book tests.

All schools have been provided with a number of testing kits to complement the main access routes. DfE state that these test kits distributed to schools should only be used in the exceptional circumstance that a student, teacher, or staff member becomes symptomatic and it is believed that there may be barriers to accessing testing elsewhere. Schools can order more. Guidance is provided in Coronavirus (COVID-19): test kits for schools and FE providers.

Mass testing may be offered to sixth-form and secondary school staff, pupils and their families in parts of the country where there are high or rising rates of infection. Such mass testing uses a newly developed “fast testing” method. The tests are intended to help identify those with asymptomatic infection.

Staff and pupils who have symptoms or who test positive must stay at home and not attend for work or school. Parents/carers should book a test if they or their child are displaying symptoms.

Contact tracing is an established infection prevention technique that has long been used in combatting communicable diseases such as coronavirus. It involves identifying and isolating people who are infected and then tracing those who may have been in contact with them. These people can then be tested and isolated as required.

In the UK, the NHS Test and Trace system is operative. It should be supported by all employers. Further information can be found from the online document, NHS Test and Trace: how it works.

Vaccine development and roll out

Research into Covid-19 vaccines is being carried out all around the world, the hope being that successful vaccines, in combination with more effective treatments for people who are infected with the virus, will be the quickest way to help return the world to some form of normality.

Vaccines developed by the drug companies Pfizer and BioNTech in the USA/Germany and by Moderna in the United States 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. In the UK, a vaccine developed jointly by Oxford University and AstraZeneca has been developed which has a 70–90% effectiveness depending on the dose.

All three vaccines have been approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) for use in the UK and urgent plans for a national vaccination rollout devised. This begun in December and will progress through 2021 as a national priority.

A strategy setting out priority groups for the vaccination roll-out has been developed by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, Advice on priority groups for COVID-19 vaccination. The JCVI is the expert advisory group responsible for making recommendations relating to all aspects of vaccination in the UK. According to the strategy, the most vulnerable must be vaccinated first, along with those that care for them.

The NHS is mobilising a huge national effort to offer vaccines to the over-70s, health and social care workers and those required to shield – about 15 million people - by mid-February. The rest of the priority groups will follow through to the spring. It is hoped that vaccines will then be available for the rest of the adult population by the summer and for all adults to have been offered a first vaccination by September.

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was initially delivered from a limited number of hospital hubs. This was because it needs to kept very cold. The AstraZeneca vaccine is easier to deploy and is being rolled out through community vaccination centres, GP practices and “mass vaccination” hubs. During 2021 the availability will expand as supplies of the vaccines increase, with a growing number of sites offering vaccination.

People will be invited to be vaccinated and should wait until they receive a letter from the NHS. More information, and access to the national booking service, can be found on the NHS Coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine webpage.

Further information about the vaccination programme can be found in the UK COVID-19 vaccines delivery plan.

At present none of the available vaccines are licensed for use on those under 16 years of age. Vaccines trials have only just begun on children and young people and there is currently very limited data on clinical risk factors in childhood.

Government strategy

The overall strategy is set out in the Government’s Coronavirus Action Plan: A Guide to What You Can Expect Across the UK, published on 3 March. This sets out a plan for trying to contain the virus and slow person-to-person spread while research continues into a vaccine.

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.