Last reviewed 3 March 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.

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.

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” when they do leave home, 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.

It should 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 have varied from place to place.

After a brief summer respite, at the end of 2020 a “second wave” of infection swept through Europe and the UK as people moved indoors in colder weather and new more infectious Covid-19 variant strains emerged. These included a “Kent” strain (B117) and a virulent strain from South Africa.

Public Health England has stated that any resultant illness from these coronavirus mutations appears to be no more severe. However, the variants are estimated to be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than original strains of the virus, raising the “R value” dramatically and spreading rapidly.

As the NHS came under severe pressure the national alert level was raised to Level 5 over the 2021 new year period and another strict lockdown was put in place throughout the UK to halt the spread of infection. The lockdown was considered necessary despite the hopeful sign of vaccines becoming available and being rolled out across the country.

National Lockdown: Stay at Home lists the full range of restrictions.

Roadmap out of lockdown

On 24 February the government in England published a new roadmap for coming out of the January 2021 lockdown. They announced that transmission rates were once again dropping and, despite the NHS remaining under serious pressure, a very cautious relaxation can now be contemplated. The plan is based on an ambitious target for Covid vaccination which has so far proved effective in helping to control the virus. The estimated dates between stages are provisional and may be subject to change as the recovery from the pandemic progresses.

According to Stage 1 of the plan, by 8 March provisions will include:

  • all schools and colleges will reopen with face coverings recommended in class for secondary school students and also for parents and staff in primary schools – outdoor after school sports will be allowed

  • university students returning for practical courses

  • wraparound childcare available for vulnerable pupils and where it is needed for parents or carers to go to work or to seek medical care

  • care home residents will be allowed one nominated person to be able to visit them indoors and with whom they can hold hands - visitors will need to wear appropriate PPE, take a lateral flow test and "keep physical contact to a minimum"

  • two people from different households will be able to meet outside for recreation, which can include "a coffee on a bench"

From 29 March:

  • people will be allowed to meet outside, either with one other household or within the "rule of six", including in private gardens

  • the stay at home rule will end, but the government will urge people to stay local as much as possible

  • outdoor sport facilities will reopen, including golf courses and tennis and basketball courts

  • parents and children groups can return but these must be outside and capped at 15

  • formally organised outdoor sports can also restart

In Stage 2, no earlier than 12 April:

  • shops, hairdressers, beauty salons, gyms and spas will be allowed to reopen

  • restaurants and pub gardens will be allowed to serve customers sitting outdoors, including alcohol

  • domestic UK holidays will be permitted, with self-contained accommodation able to reopen for use by members of the same household

  • children will be allowed to attend indoor play activities, with up to 15 parents or guardians allowed to join them

In Stage 3, no earlier than 17 May:

  • people will be able to meet in groups of up to 30 outdoors and six people or two households can meet indoors

  • pubs, restaurants and other hospitality venues will be able to seat customers indoors and hotels, hostels and B&Ss will be able to reopen

  • indoor entertainment such as museums, theatres, cinemas and children's play areas will be able to open

  • adult indoor group sports and exercise classes will restart

Lastly, in Stage 4, no earlier than 21t June, it is hoped that all legal limits on social contact will be removed and there will be no legal limits on the number of people who can attend weddings, funerals and other life events.

Full details are set out in Covid-19 Response − Spring 2021. Each stage will be a minimum of five weeks apart and will depend upon the ongoing rollout of vaccination and no surge in hospital admissions. The programme will be kept under review and adjusted as required.

There will be variations in the exact nature of timings and conditions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. However, the general direction of travel is broadly the same with an emphasis on a return to schooling for children.

“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.

With the emergence of the more transmissible coronavirus strains in the UK, shielding was reinstated in December and individuals once again advised to not go out (except for exercise and medical appointments) and to keep contact with others to a minimum. The advice runs until the end of March.

In February 2021, following a greater understanding by doctors of the importance of factors such as age, ethnicity and deprivation, more people were written to and added to the shielding list.

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 in England 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. Exams were cancelled and support for home teaching was provided by teachers using online digital platforms. Schools were reopened for the autumn term when virus transmission rates were felt to be sufficiently reduced and mitigated by “Covid-safe” actions by schools to ensure safety. However, following the spike of infection over the Christmas and New Year period the Department for Education announced that schools must again close from January 2021. Exceptions are early years provision, which must remain open, and, as in the first lockdown, those schools providing places for the children of key workers and for vulnerable children.

Restricting attendance during the national lockdown: schools, was published by DfE in January 2021. It summarises the “Covid-safe” system of controls that schools that remain open during the lockdown must apply. It also includes information on testing, free school meals, remote education and inspections.

Schools coronavirus (COVID-19) operational guidance applies to all schools in England from 8 March, replacing the restricted attendance provisions. It states that all pupils should attend school from March onwards and provides operational “Covid-safe” guidance for schools of all types in England.

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.

Risk assessment

Schools coronavirus (COVID-19) operational guidance explains the actions school leaders should take to minimise the risk of transmission of coronavirus (Covid-19) in their school. To prepare for reopening this must include reviewing and, where necessary, updating Covid-19 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.

DfE have published an annex to their coronavirus guidance which seeks to support schools in carrying out their assessments and in keeping them up to date. Annex A: health and safety risk assessment can be found on the GOV.UK web platform. It includes advice on staff consultation and risk estimation and management.

In all case the DfE state that they will expect schools to follow the protective measures set out in their guidance, including the advised system of controls.

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 both Restricting attendance during the national lockdown: schools and in Schools coronavirus (COVID-19) operational guidance.

DfE state that, in order to prevent virus transmission, the following measures must always be in place:

  1. Minimise contact with individuals who are required to self-isolate by ensuring they do not attend the school

  2. Ensure face coverings are used in recommended circumstances

  3. Ensure everyone is advised to clean their hands thoroughly and more often than usual

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

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

  6. Consider how to minimise contact across the site and maintain social distancing wherever possible

  7. Keep occupied spaces well ventilated

    In specific circumstances schools should:

  8. Ensure individuals wear the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) where necessary

  9. Promote and engage in asymptomatic testing, where available

    In response to infection DfE state that schools must always:

  10. Promote and engage with the NHS Test and Trace process

  11. Manage and report confirmed cases of coronavirus (Covid-19) amongst the school community

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

The guidance provides details about how each of these measures should be implemented.

Minimising contact with individuals required to self-isolate

The guidance on minimising contact with individuals who are required to self-isolate is detailed and should be followed carefully by school leaders. It is divided into the following sections:

  • When an individual develops coronavirus (Covid-19) symptoms or has a positive test

  • When an individual has had close contact with someone with coronavirus (Covid-19) symptoms

DfE state that pupils, staff and other adults must not come into the school if:

  • they have one or more coronavirus (Covid-19) symptoms

  • a member of their household (including someone in their support bubble or childcare bubble if they have one) has coronavirus (Covid-19) symptoms

  • they are required to quarantine having recently travelled abroad

  • they have had a positive test

  • told to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace

In all of these cases the “stay at home” guidance issued by the government must be followed. Anyone told to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace or by their public health protection team has a legal obligation to do so.

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.

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.

Schools coronavirus (COVID-19) operational guidance states that if anyone in a school develops a new and continuous cough or a high temperature, or has a loss of, or change in, their normal sense of taste or smell (anosmia), the school must:

  • send them home to begin isolation (the isolation period includes the day the symptoms started and the next 10 full days)

  • advise them to follow the guidance for households with possible or confirmed coronavirus (Covid-19) infection

  • advise them to arrange to have a test as soon as possible to see if they have coronavirus (Covid-19)

Other members of their household (including any siblings and members of their support or childcare bubble if they have one) should also self-isolate.

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. 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.

DfE advise that any member of staff who has provided close contact care to someone with symptoms, regardless of whether they are wearing PPE, and all other members of staff or pupils who have been in close contact with that person, do not need to go home to self-isolate unless:

  • the symptomatic person subsequently tests positive

  • they develop symptoms themselves (in which case, they should self-isolate immediately and arrange to have a test)

  • they are requested to do so by NHS Test and Trace or the Public Health England (PHE) advice service (or PHE local health protection team if escalated)

  • they have tested positive as part of a community or worker programme

DfE instruct that everyone must wash their hands thoroughly for 20 seconds with soap and running water or use hand sanitiser after any contact with someone who is unwell. Covid-19: cleaning in non-healthcare settings outside the home provides further guidance on cleaning and decontamination after a suspected case of Covid-19 has been present.

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.

Hand cleaning and respiratory hygiene

Regular hand cleaning with soap and water or hand desensitiser is known to be an effective way of preventing the Covid-19 virus being passed on by touch. According to the DfE guidance schools must therefore ensure that pupils clean their hands regularly, including:

  • when they arrive at the school

  • when they return from breaks

  • when they change rooms

  • before and after eating

DfE suggest that staff working with pupils who spit uncontrollably may want more opportunities to wash their hands than other staff.

DfE also remind schools that the “catch it, bin it, kill it” approach to respiratory hygiene continues to be very important. Schools should make sure enough tissues and bins are available to support pupils and staff to follow the routine.

Schools must ensure younger pupils and those with complex needs are adequately supported with both hand cleaning and respiratory hygiene.

Minimising contact between people and maintaining social distancing

The DfE guidance states that schools must do “everything possible” to minimise contacts between people while delivering a broad and balanced curriculum. DfE state that the overarching principle is to reduce the number of contacts between pupils and staff. This, they suggest, may be achieved through keeping groups separate (in “bubbles”) and through maintaining distance between individuals.

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.

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

  • avoiding large gatherings such as assemblies or collective worship with more than one group

  • staggering break times to allow uncongested movement around the site.

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. 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.

For individual and very frequently used equipment, such as pencils and pens, DfE recommend that staff and pupils should have their own items. Classroom based resources, such as books and games, can be used and shared within each bubble. These should be cleaned regularly, along with all frequently touched surfaces.

Face masks

Schools coronavirus (COVID-19) operational guidance contains recommendations on the use of masks in education that differs slightly from previous advice.

The guidance states that where pupils in year 7 and above are educated:

  • it is recommended that face coverings should be worn by adults and pupils when moving around the premises, outside of classrooms, such as in corridors and communal areas where social distancing cannot easily be maintained

  • face coverings should also be worn in classrooms or during activities unless social distancing can be maintained - this does not apply in situations where wearing a face covering would impact on the ability to take part in exercise or strenuous activity, for example in PE lessons

  • face coverings do not need to be worn by pupils when outdoors on the premises

In primary schools the DfE recommend that face coverings should be worn by staff and adult visitors in situations where social distancing between adults is not possible (for example, when moving around in corridors and communal areas). However, children in primary school do not need to wear a face covering.

DfE state that the additional precautionary measure will be in place for a limited time, probably until Easter 2021.

Schools should have processes and facilities in place to enable the safe use of face coverings by pupils. This should include a supply of spare face coverings for pupils who are struggling to access them. DfE stress that no pupil should be denied education on the grounds that they are not wearing a face covering.

Further details can be found in Face coverings in education.

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.”

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. Adjustments will also have to be made for pupils or staff who rely on lip reading, clear sound or facial expression to communicate.

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.

Schools coronavirus (COVID-19) operational guidance includes a range of recommendations for ensuring safe travel to and from school during the pandemic. As part of efforts to encourage social distancing and discourage crowded situations on buses and at school gates, this includes schools considering 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.

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

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). Schools coronavirus (COVID-19) operational guidance reinforces the requirements once the lockdown period is over.

According to the guidance 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.

Curriculum delivery

Schools coronavirus (COVID-19) operational guidance contains a range of recommendations relating to the need to ensure that all pupils – particularly disadvantaged, SEND and vulnerable pupils – are given the support needed to make good progress across the curriculum when schools reopen.

The guidance covers the safe delivery of:

  • Early years foundation stage requirements

  • Key stages 1-5

  • Relationships, sex and health education (RSHE)

  • Music, dance and drama in school

  • Physical activity in schools

DfE suggests that, where appropriate, teaching time should be prioritised to address the most significant gaps in pupils’ knowledge following the lockdown.

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. Various proposals have therefore been made for catch-up support during the summer holidays, including a £650 million “catch-up premium” funding stream and a £350 million National Tutoring Programme to provide additional, targeted support for those children and young people who need the most help.

Full details can be found here.

School workforce considerations

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.

Schools coronavirus (COVID-19) operational guidance applies from 8th March. This also places responsibility onto school leaders to determine local workforce needs for each school on reopening.

Additional guidance covers staff who are have been written to by the NHS and are designated as “clinically extremely vulnerable” (or “high risk”) and subject to shielding arrangements. According to the DfE these staff are advised not to attend the workplace at present. Employers should talk to staff involved about how they will be supported, including support to work from home where possible.

“Shielded” individuals are prioritised for vaccination. However, current guidance advises the clinically extremely vulnerable to continue to shield even after they have been vaccinated.

DfE state that school staff who are “clinically vulnerable” (or “moderate risk”) can attend school. 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.

During lockdown pregnant school staff have been advised to work at home where possible. As schools reopen pregnant staff should be considered as clinically vulnerable. Workplace risk assessments should be updated to ensure that they consider any risks to female employees of childbearing age and, in particular, risks to new and expectant mothers.

Schools are advised that during the pandemic 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.

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.

Schools coronavirus (COVID-19) operational guidance reminds school employers that they have a legal obligation to protect their employees, and others, including children, from harm. This is not diminished during the pandemic. Employers should continue to assess and update health and safety risks in the usual way, especially in the light of any changing circumstances.

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. This advice will be kept under review but will continue to apply after 8 March.


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

Testing is another complex area for schools.

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.

Asymptomatic testing in secondary schools

Schools coronavirus (COVID-19) operational guidance states that mass asymptomatic testing will be deployed in schools from the start of March 2021 in order to support reopening.

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 in their guidance that testing remains voluntary but is strongly encouraged.

For secondary school staff and pupils:

  • schools should offer pupils testing at an on-site Asymptomatic Testing Site (ATS) from 8th March

  • 3 onsite tests will be required administered 3 to 5 days apart - if consent is provided, pupils should be asked to self-swab at the on-site ATS and after 30 minutes they should be informed of their results

  • pupils should return to face-to-face education following their first negative test result

  • once pupils have been tested 3 times at school, they will be provided with home test kits for regular testing

  • staff and pupils must report the results of their home tests to NHS Test and Trace as soon as a test is completed either online or by telephone as per the instructions in the home test kit

Schools have flexibility to deliver ATS testing on a phased basis. DfE advise schools to prioritise vulnerable children and children of critical workers, and year groups 10 to 13. Pupils not undergoing testing immediately should attend school in line with phased return arrangements.

Individuals with a positive LFD test result will need to self-isolate in line with government guidance.

Asymptomatic testing in primary schools

Staff in primary schools should test with LFDs twice a week at home, as per existing guidance, Rapid asymptomatic coronavirus (COVID-19) testing for staff in primary schools, school-based nurseries and maintained nursery schools.

Tracking and tracing

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.

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

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. This includes care home residents and staff as the highest priority. People who are on a GP register for learning disabilities were added to the priority groups in an update to the schedule.

The NHS is mobilising a huge national effort to offer the vaccines. 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 hospitals, 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.

An initial government target to offer vaccines by mid-February to the over-70s, to health and social care workers and to those required to shield – about 15 million people – was met. The rest of the priority groups will follow through to the spring by which time everybody 50 and over will have been offered a jab. Vaccines will then be available for the rest of the adult population with a target for all adults to have been offered a first vaccination by July. The JCVI have stated that this second phase will start with people aged 40-49. A campaign to have teachers and other professions prioritised was rejected as clinical evidence suggests that an age related approach will save more lives in the long term.

The currently available vaccines require a two-dose course for maximum effectiveness against the virus. However, the JCVI strategy has been updated to place priority on promoting rapid, high levels of vaccine uptake amongst vulnerable persons. The JCVI thus state that delivery of the first dose to as many eligible individuals as possible should be initially prioritised over delivery of a second vaccine dose. JCVI therefore recommend that the second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine may be given between 3 to 12 weeks following the first dose and the second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine may be given between 4 to 12 weeks following the first dose.

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.

Public health doctors have been quick to welcome the development of the new vaccines as an exciting breakthrough in the fight against Covid-19. However, they warn that there is still a long way to go. In the meantime, tried and tested methods of preventing virus transmission, such as social distancing and the wearing of masks, must continue.

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.

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.