Last reviewed 21 May 2020

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.

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?

People who think they may have coronavirus symptoms should stay at home as follows:

  • people who have symptoms of infection 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 (if anyone else in the household starts displaying symptoms, they need to stay at home for 7 days from when the symptom appeared, regardless of what day they are on in the original 14-day isolation period)

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.

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

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

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.

Lockdown easing

On May 10th the prime minister announced that the measures had been successful enough to consider a phased easing of the lockdown. It was announced that, in England only, people should continue to stay at home for most of the time but that they could start to gradually do more exercise and outdoor activities. Garden centres were reopened and people could start to meet again in parks and open spaces, albeit not in groups. 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 is 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, restrictions may vary between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales where different roadmaps apply. Regional variations may also exist as different parts of the UK are affected at different times by the virus.

It should also be noted that the gradual exit from lockdown depends on the transmission rate of the virus, referred to as the “R” value, remaining low. The lockdown will be re-imposed if a second wave of the virus is considered a risk and it is likely that, in the absence of a viable vaccine, some form of restrictions based on social distancing will become the “new normal” in countries all over the world. In addition, a temporary reimposition of restrictions may also be applied in local or regional “hotspots” rather than across the whole country.

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.

The guidance underlines the vital role that schools and early years providers play in society, not only in the development and education of children and young people but also in their safeguarding and wellbeing.

School and nursery closures

On 19th March the government announced that schools across the UK should close as part of the nationwide lockdown. The closure order was applied to schools of all types, including private schools and sixth forms, and to nurseries and early years childcare.

As part of the closure arrangements, schools and nurseries were required to maintain support for the children of key workers and for the most vulnerable children where this support was needed. In many areas this was achieved by establishing a network of partially open institutions and “hubs” operating shared provision. The government also recognised that some special schools and residential settings needed to continue to look after their pupils.

Key workers were defined as including NHS staff such as doctors, nurses and support workers, fire and ambulance services staff, social workers and police. It was also taken to include members of the armed forces and prison officers as well as food production and supply staff such as supermarket delivery drivers.

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

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 was provided by teachers using online digital platforms. Information was provided for parents by the Department for Education (DfE).

During the height of virus transmission in March and April the government pointed out that, according to public health experts, schools, colleges and other educational establishments remained safe places for children. However, it was considered that 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 were asked to only attend where safe alternative childcare arrangements could not be made and where there was an absolute need.

Running reduced provision

Schools and early years’ services that have remained open to support vulnerable children and the children of critical workers have been required to operate safely and comply with all DfE/PHE guidance as well as with health and safety law as usual. They must assess their demand and capacity and make appropriate arrangements for staffing.

The number of staff required to run schools or early years provisions that remain open varies based on the number of children attending and their individual needs. Schools and early years providers who struggle to meet demand should liaise with their local authority. DfE state that temporary workers can be used if alternative arrangements cannot be made.

At the start of the closure period guidance was published for schools and early years on social distancing. Coronavirus (COVID-19): Implementing Social Distancing in Education and Childcare Settings stated that social distancing should be implemented for all teaching, childcare and in-work activities in facilities that remained open. This involves a restructuring of common procedures and activities. For instance:

  • class sizes were required to be kept small so that minimum distances between staff and children could be maintained

  • non-essential staff meetings, activities and training should be cancelled and more use made of e-learning and email, etc

  • the sharing of food, drink, utensils, equipment and toys should be prevented wherever possible

  • measures should be taken to discourage parents from gathering at gates and entrances during pick-up/drop-off times

Open schools and early years facilities were also required to ensure that their infection control policies and child ill-health procedures were up to date and were being implemented fully. Emphasis was placed on the provision of hand hygiene facilities, including soaps and paper towels for hand washing and alcohol hand rubs.

Note that Coronavirus (COVID-19): Implementing Social Distancing in Education and Childcare Settings has now been replaced by new guidance aimed at supporting all schools and early years providers in reopening their closed services (see below).

Re-opening education and early years services

The government has stated that it wants to get all children and young people back into education and childcare as soon as the scientific advice shows that it is safe to do so. The first signs of this came in the middle of May when the prime minister made his announcement about relaxing the lockdown in England. According to his scientific advisors, he stated, sufficient progress had been made in bringing down virus transmission rates to consider the partial and phased reopening of services, including schools and early years facilities.

Key guidance on reopening is set out by DfE in Actions for education and childcare settings to prepare for wider opening from 1 June 2020.

The guidance states that, from the week commencing 1 June 2020 at the earliest, the government is asking primary schools to welcome back children in Nursery, Reception, year 1 and year 6, alongside the priority groups already attending. At the same time secondary schools, sixth form and further education colleges will be asked to offer some face-to-face support to supplement the remote education of year 10 and year 12 students who are due to take key exams next year, alongside the full time provision they are offering to priority groups. In addition, nurseries and other early years providers, including childminders, are being urged to start welcoming back all children.

Scientific evidence underpinning the guidance states that children of all ages may have less severe symptoms than adults if they contract coronavirus. In addition, a gradual phased return of schools is considered unlikely to increase transmission rates significantly, provided adequate controls are introduced.

It should be noted, however, that the return to school and childcare plan has not been without its critics, particularly from those who worry that the government is attempting to reopen services too soon. Calls have been made for the plan to be delayed while additional safety measures are introduced, especially in areas of the country that still have higher transmission and illness rates.

School governors, heads and early years managers should consult the latest guidance to check whether the reopening scheme will go ahead as planned. If the risks of proposed reopening are considered too great during a re-evaluation at the start of June the government has promised that its plans will be postponed until the time is right.

In Scotland plans for a gradual reopening of schools from August have been presented.

Preparing to manage risk and prevent transmission after reopening

School governors, heads, senior leadership teams and early years leaders and managers of currently closed facilities should plan ahead so that they can provide safe premises and services when they do reopen.

During the lockdown the education and childcare settings that have remained open have had to adopt new ways of working to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus and protect both children and staff. These safe working methods are now being required in all education and childcare premises.

Arrangements to prevent transmission are set out in a wide range of DfE documents which have largely replaced earlier guidance produced at the start of the lockdown.

Key guidance can be found in:

Additional guidance includes:

Taken together the guidance sets out a comprehensive range of control measures designed to help schools and early years providers ensure that their premises are “COVID secure” and safe for children and young people to attend and for staff to work in.

Coronavirus (COVID-19): implementing protective measures in education and childcare settings, contains crucial infection prevention guidance. It suggests that a clear focus should be on the following hierarchy:

  • minimising contact with individuals who are unwell by ensuring that those who have coronavirus symptoms, or who have someone in their household who does, do not attend childcare settings, schools or colleges

  • cleaning hands more often than usual - wash hands thoroughly for 20 seconds with running water and soap and dry them thoroughly or use alcohol hand rub or sanitiser ensuring that all parts of the hands are covered

  • ensuring good respiratory hygiene by promoting the “catch it, bin it, kill it” approach

  • cleaning frequently touched surfaces often using standard products, such as detergents and bleach

  • minimising contact and mixing by altering, as much as possible, the environment (such as classroom layout) and timetables (such as staggered break times)

To support infection prevention, the guidance sets out the following key actions:

  • Every school and early years setting should carry out a risk assessment and carry out health and safety compliance checks before opening. The assessment should directly address risks associated with coronavirus so that sensible measures can be put in place to control those risks for children and staff.

  • Class sizes and group sizes should be reduced in order to enable social distancing and reduce the potential for transmission of the virus.

  • For primary schools, classes should normally be split in half, with no more than 15 pupils per small group and one teacher (and, if needed, a teaching assistant). If there are any shortages of teachers, then teaching assistants can be allocated to lead a group, working under the direction of a teacher.

  • For secondary schools and colleges, the same principle of halving classes will normally apply.

  • Timetables and lesson plans should be revised. Decide which lessons or activities will be delivered and consider which ones could take place outdoors.

  • Assembly groups, break times and lunch times should be staggered.

DfE acknowledge that maintaining the 2 meters social distance required of adults, older children and adolescents is unlikely to be possible with early years and primary age children. However, they state that it is still important to reduce contact between young children as far as possible by ensuring that children, where possible, mix in their small “cohort” groups only and are kept away from other people and groups. Ensure that the same teachers and other staff are assigned to each group and, as far as possible, keep these pairings the same during the day and on subsequent days.

Safe social distancing should be encouraged and facilitated in any way practicable, including by premises redesign. Unnecessary furniture should be removed. Desks and workstations should not be placed in clusters. Instead they should be separated. Windows and doors should be kept open for better ventilation. Corridors should be marked out in “one-way” traffic systems to keep traffic streams apart.

School pupils and early years children should not share equipment, such as pencils and pens. Soft toys that are difficult to clean should be removed, as should play materials such as play dough and clay.

Cleaning regimes should follow the COVID-19: cleaning of non-healthcare settings guidance published by Public Health England. Sufficient handwashing facilities must be made available as well as hand sanitiser in classrooms and other learning environments.

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. Staggered drop-off times should avoid large numbers of parents and children gathering at school gates and entrances. Drop-off areas should ideally be marked out to ensure distancing.

Schools and early years premises should be sealed off to all but essential staff and pupils wherever possible. Parents should be asked to remain outside. Conversations with parents should be managed with social distancing in mind. Where necessary communications should be achieved through email and phone rather than face-to-face.

It is advised that school pupils and children attending childcare do not bring anything in with them from home, such as PE kit, school bags, pencil cases, toys or comforters, etc. Packed lunches however are encouraged.

DfE acknowledge that arrangements will vary from one school or early years provider to another and each setting’s circumstances will be slightly different. All plans should be clearly communicated to parents.

Specific early years measures

Planning guide for early years and childcare settings sets out considerations for providers in England who wish to reopen their services to more children as the lockdown lifts. Importantly DfE state that every setting is different and there is no requirement to use all or parts of the toolkit.

The guidance covers risk assessments, cleaning and hygiene, use of PPE and reducing face-to-face contact with parents.

As with primary schools a key measure to prevent the spread of the virus is dividing children into “bubbles” or small groups and keeping those groups apart with their own dedicated staff. DfE state that groups should be kept as small as possible while adhering to Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) ratios. While groups of a maximum of eight children are preferable, DfE state that providers are expected to ensure that there are no more than 16 children in a group in early years settings.

In order to assist providers the EYFS staff ratios have been subject to temporary relaxation in accordance with the Early years foundation stage: coronavirus disapplications. These changes are designed to allow providers greater flexibility to respond to changes in workforce availability and potential fluctuations in demand.

Settings should manage the use of communal spaces to limit the amount of mixing between groups as much as possible and ensure effective “social distancing” between groups.

Communicating effectively with families and the community is also considered a key action. This includes making sure that parents understand that if a child has coronavirus symptoms, or there is someone in their household who does, they should not attend the setting under any circumstances.

Illness while on-site

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 the COVID-19: guidance for households with possible coronavirus infection guidance.

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.

In an emergency, call 999 if they are 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.

Face coverings and PPE

National difficulties in supplying infection prevention personal protective equipment (PPE) to the NHS and to care homes have been regularly featured in the news since the start of the pandemic.

The DfE guidance states that the majority of staff in education settings will not require PPE such as disposable gloves, aprons and face shields, etc., beyond what they would normally need for their work, even if they are not always able to maintain a distance of 2 metres from others. In educational and childcare settings this type of PPE will typically be needed for cleaning roles and for work with those children and young people who have intimate care needs.

Wearing a face covering or face mask in schools or other education settings is not recommended at this time by DfE. DfE state that face coverings may be beneficial for short periods indoors where there is a risk of close social contact with other people and where social distancing and other measures cannot be maintained, for example on public transport or in some shops. However, in the view of the government this does not apply to schools or other education settings.

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.

“Moderate-risk” and “High-risk” individuals

Certain people of all ages are considered to be more at risk of serious illness from COVID-19 infection than others. Public Health England recognise two categories, those who are at moderate risk (vulnerable) and those who are at high risk (extremely vulnerable).

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) or

  • 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

Those in the “moderate risk” (vulnerable) category are advised to 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.

Those in the “high risk” (extremely vulnerable) category are subject to special “shielding” arrangements set out in Guidance on Shielding and Protecting People Defined on Medical Grounds as Extremely Vulnerable from COVID-19.

Those who are shielded were originally advised to self-isolate and not to leave home for any reason for at least 12 weeks (until the end of June). They were advised to take stringent precautions.

However, as part of the general lockdown easing in England, those in the high risk category have been told that from the start of June they can begin to go out with members of their own household if they are “comfortable” to do so. People are advised that they should still practice strict social distancing and hand hygiene. Those living alone can meet with someone from another household if they wish.

Coronavirus (COVID-19): Implementing protective measures in education and childcare settings states that staff in the extremely vulnerable category should not attend for work. For moderate risk staff the guidance states that their need to take extra care in observing social distancing should be supported by education and early years employers. Wherever possible they should be supported to work from home. Individuals who cannot work from home should be offered the safest available on-site roles.

Children who are considered to be high risk (extremely vulnerable) are advised not to return to school or a nursery when they reopen. They should remain at home and comply with the shielding arrangements. Moderate risk (vulnerable) children will differ from case to case and parents should be advised to seek medical guidance.

DfE states that if a child, young person or a member of staff lives with someone who is clinically vulnerable (but not clinically extremely vulnerable), including those who are pregnant, they can attend their education or childcare setting when they reopen. Those who live in a household with someone who is shielded are advised they only attend an education or childcare setting if stringent social distancing can be adhered to and, in the case of children, they are able to understand and follow those instructions.

Travel advice

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

At the start of the pandemic, people flying back to the UK from certain “specified countries” where outbreaks had been reported were required to self-isolate for 14 days. However, this has been extended with the introduction of new quarantine rules for UK arrivals applicable from 8 June. These require any passengers arriving in the UK by plane, ferry or train to provide Border Force officials with an address where they must self-isolate for two weeks. People travelling from the Republic of Ireland are exempt. If a person does not have suitable accommodation to go to they will be required to stay in facilities arranged by the Government.

The arrangements will be reviewed every three weeks and relaxed when safe to do so.

Testing, tracking and tracing

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

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.

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.

Contact tracing during the COVOD-19 pandemic has already proved effective in countries such as China, South Korea and Germany. The government has stated that it is developing its own system based on location tracking mobile phone apps which it hopes will be in operation in England sometime in June. An NHS tracking app is currently being trialled, as are apps in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Vaccine development and the future

Research into a COVID-19 vaccine is being carried out as a priority around the world. Hopeful reports suggest that something may be available before the end of the year or in 2021, although how successful such a vaccine will be and how it may be made available and rolled out is not yet known.

Whether a vaccine is developed or not, with the world entering a financial crisis after the pandemic and the ongoing threat of virus transmission remaining, ways of life may be significantly changed for good after the pandemic has passed.

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.