What is coronavirus and what can schools and early years providers do to keep their pupils and children safe?

This information is being continually checked and updated.

What is coronavirus?

The World Health Organisation 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-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). COVID-19 is a new strain which originated in China at the end of 2019. It has since spread to other countries initiating a global public health emergency.

WHO is working hard with counties worldwide to control the outbreak and has labelled it a pandemic. This means that the disease has become established in a number of countries and is spreading from person-to-person.

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.

There is currently no evidence that people who are without symptoms are infectious to others.

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptoms are fever, tiredness, and dry cough. Some people may have aches and pains, nasal congestion, runny nose, sore throat or diarrhoea. 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.

For schools and early years settings the government states that there is no evidence that children are more affected than other age groups and so far very few child cases have been reported.

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.

What is self-isolation?

From Tuesday 17 March, the following advice is being circulated.

  • people who have symptoms of infection (new continuous cough and/or high temperature - however mild) and live alone should self-isolate by staying at home and not leaving their house for 7 days from when the symptoms started

  • 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

  • people should use the internet for information wherever possible – they do not need to call NHS111 to go into self-isolation

  • if symptoms worsen during home isolation or are no better after 7 days people should contact NHS111 online - if without internet access they should call NHS111

  • for a medical emergency dial 999

People who are worried about symptoms are being asked to avoid going directly to their GP, to a pharmacy or to a hospital. Wherever possible they should use the NHS111 online service at https://111.nhs.uk/service/COVID-19/

Testing for coronavirus is not needed for people self-isolating and staying at home.

Households 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

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.

Self-isolating is designed to slow down the spread of the virus and protect others in the community whilst someone is infectious. It is understood that most people will no longer be likely to transmit the virus 7 days after the onset of symptoms. In a household situation it is likely that people will infect each other. This is the reason for the 14 day self-isolation.

Staying at home and social distancing

On 16 March the government asked people to stay at home where possible and to avoid unnecessary social contact. On 23 March the government went further and announced that people were required to stay home. In these so-called “lockdown” arrangements people should only go outside for the following reasons:

  • if they are shopping for necessities, such as food and medicine

  • to carry out one form of exercise a day, alone or with household members

  • for medical or care needs, for example to help a vulnerable person

  • when travelling to and from work, but only where work cannot be done from home

Key workers are still free to travel to and from work. This includes healthcare and social care workers, ambulance and fire personnel, the police and those involved in food production and distribution. It also includes teachers and school and nursery staff.

People staying home should not have visitors, not even from friends or family. If they do have to go out people are asked to do so for only short periods. They should go straight home afterwards. While out they must observe “social distancing” rules. This involves keeping a safe distance of at least 2 metres (about 3 steps) from others.

The lockdown arrangements specifically ban gathering in groups of more than two people. Sporting and leisure events have been cancelled and all places where people gather socially have been closed. This includes shops, pubs, clubs, theatre, cinema, restaurants, cafes, hotels, B&B, leisure centres, hairdressers, libraries and places of worship. It also includes outside places such as playgrounds, campsites, outside gyms and some parks. Shops that sell essential goods remain open, including food shops and pharmacies.

The lockdown restrictions are enforceable by the police.

Vulnerable people, including those aged 70 and over, are being advised to be particularly stringent in following social distancing measures. 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.

Specific guidance for the education sector

On 19 March the government announced that schools across the UK should close on Friday afternoon (20 March). The closure order applies to schools of all types, including private schools and sixth forms, and to nurseries.

As part of the closure arrangements, schools and nurseries are required to maintain support for the children of key workers and for the most vulnerable children where this is needed. This is likely to be achieved by establishing a skeleton network of partially open institutions. The government also recognises that some special schools and residential settings will need to continue to look after their pupils.

Key workers include NHS staff such as doctors, nurses and support workers, fire and ambulance services staff, social workers and police. It also include members of the armed forces and prison officers as well as staff such as supermarket delivery drivers.

Vulnerable children include those who have a social worker and those with Education, Health and Care Plans.

Children who do not fall into these groups should remain at home with appropriate care.

Guidance for schools, colleges and local authorities on maintaining educational provision gives further details about who exactly should be regarded as “key workers” and what is meant by “vulnerable” children. The guidance points out that, according to public health experts, schools, colleges and other educational establishments remain safe places for children. However, the fewer children making the journey to school, and the fewer children in educational settings, the lower the risk that the virus can spread and infect vulnerable individuals in wider society. For this reason vulnerable children and children of key workers should only attend where safe alternative childcare arrangements cannot be made and there is an absolute need.

Further information can be found in:

Closure of educational settings: information for parents and carers sets out details of the closure plans for parents.

Where schools or nurseries are unable to look after the vulnerable/key worker children required of them (for instance, due to staff shortages) local authorities are required to work with DfE regional teams to ensure alternative options are available.

Since the early stages of the coronavirus crisis schools and nurseries have been required to comply with official guidance from the Department for Education, COVID-19: guidance for educational settings. These still apply to schools and nurseries that remain open, even at a reduced level.

The guidance can be found at www.gov.uk/government/publications/guidance-to-educational-settings-about-covid-19

Information included covers situations where:

  • a member of staff or a child becomes unwell

  • a case of COVID-19 (child or staff) is confirmed in the school or setting

  • someone has travelled from a specified country in the previous 14 days

The guidance also covers how to clean up after a suspected case and what to do with associated rubbish such as tissues.

Schools and early years services should make sure that their infection control policies and child ill-health procedures are up to date and are being implemented fully. They should also ensure that parents are kept informed about any developments and liaise with local health protection teams as required.

Free school meals

COVID-19: free school meals guidance for schools, was published by DfE on 19 March.

This guidance explains what schools must do to make sure that eligible pupils have continued access to free meals where they have to stay at home due to school closures. Options include providing food parcels/meals through school catering teams or providing vouchers to parents for use in supermarkets or local shops. Costs will be covered by the DfE.

“High-risk” individuals

Guidance on shielding and protecting people defined on medical grounds as extremely vulnerable from COVID-19, published by PHE on 21 March, sets out the details of a scheme to ensure that the most vulnerable “high-risk” individuals are protected during the crisis.

“High-risk” individuals are considered very vulnerable to severe illness as a result of COVID-19 infection. They include people who have had an organ transplant, those having cancer treatment, those with lung conditions such as severe asthma, and those with weakened immune systems. It also includes women who are pregnant and have a serious heart condition.

High-risk people are advised not to leave their home for a period of at least 12 weeks and to avoid close contact with other people in their homes as much as possible.

Should people wear facemasks?

Public health authorities are not recommending the use of facemasks to prevent the spread of infection. There is little evidence of benefit from their use outside of clinical settings such as hospitals.

Travel advice

COVID-19 originated in China and initially spread through infected people travelling to other countries.

Travelling is now much reduced due to countries around the world closing their borders. Government advice is to avoid any unnecessary travel.

For people returning from certain “specified countries” where outbreaks have been reported, or for people who have been in contact with someone confirmed as having coronavirus, 14 day self-isolation covers the potential incubation period. Those who do not show symptoms after 14 days do not have the virus.

On 23 March the government advised all British citizens to return home to the UK.

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:

Things may change rapidly as the outbreak escalates and people should always refer to the latest information.

Last reviewed 30 March 2020