Last reviewed 26 April 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.

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.

Stage 1 in March saw schools and colleges reopen and people from different households were able to meet outside for recreation. The “stay at home rule” ended but people were urged to stay local as much as possible. Care home residents were allowed nominated indoor visitors. Outdoor sport facilities reopened, including golf courses and tennis and basketball courts, and parents and children groups returned.

Stage 2 in April saw further restrictions lifted. Shops, hairdressers, beauty salons, gyms and spas were allowed to reopen and restaurants and pubs were allowed to serve customers sitting outdoors, including alcohol. Self-contained domestic UK holidays were permitted and sports facilities restarted. Children were allowed to attend indoor play activities again, 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 21st 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.

Details of current restrictions can be found on the GOV.UK webpage, (COVID-19) Coronavirus restrictions: what you can and cannot do.

It should be noted that the estimated dates between roadmap stages are provisional and may be subject to change as the recovery from the pandemic progresses. 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.

Clinically “extremely vulnerable” people

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

Extremely vulnerable (high-risk) people includes 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.

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.

As part of the general lockdown easing process, the need for the “shielding scheme” was re-evaluated and in August 2020 the scheme was paused, only to be reinstated in December with the emergence of the more transmissible coronavirus strains in the UK. At the end of March it was once again paused as part of lockdown easing. Clinically extremely vulnerable people are advised to continue to take extra precautions to protect themselves and to access their vaccinations, etc.

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

The document is regularly updated. It provides operational “Covid-safe” guidance in addition to all other applicable health and safety legislation.

School closures and reopenings

As part of the pandemic response, schools and early years settings in England were closed as part of the initial lockdown in March 2020, except for a partial service to support vulnerable children and the children of key workers. Exams were cancelled and support for home teaching was provided by teachers using online digital platforms. Schools 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 a spike of infection over the Christmas period exacerbated by new more transmissible variants of the virus, schools were again closed during a second lockdown from January 2021.

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

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

Full reopening was ordered as part of the lockdown easing roadmap from the 8th March. From this date all pupils should be re-attending school wherever possible.

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

Running schools safely during the pandemic

Schools coronavirus (COVID-19) operational guidance explains the actions school leaders should take to minimise the risk of transmission of coronavirus (Covid-19) and run schools safely during the pandemic. 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 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 secondary schools, DfE recommend that face coverings should be worn by staff and adults (including visitors) in situations where social distancing is not possible (for example, when moving around in corridors and communal areas).

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, subject to the satisfactory progress of the lockdown easing roadmap, as part of step 3 they expect these precautionary measures to no longer be recommended. This would be no earlier than 17 May and will be confirmed.

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.

With pupils returning to school in March 2021, most will access their meals on-site. A small number of pupils may remain at home, for instance, those self-isolating. The guidance states that where such children receive free school meals this must be accommodated.

Schools that remain open during lockdown periods 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 after March 2021 or to attend school during lockdown periods if they are eligible to do so. Support should be provided according to individual needs and personalised educational healthcare plans.

Support for home learning

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

Schools coronavirus (COVID-19) operational guidance includes a range of recommendations for delivering remote education. 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

Schools are advised to teach a “planned and well-sequenced curriculum” using a suitable digital platform. The guidance includes advice on obtaining a digital platform, if one is not in place, and on ways to help pupils and their families in overcoming barriers to using technology. Links are provided to guidance on delivering remote education safely.

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

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

During lockdown periods many school staff will have been required to work from home. Upon reopening the major staff concerns will have been for those people who have been considered extremely clinically vulnerable (those who were advised to “shield” themselves) and those who may be otherwise vulnerable to Covid-19, such as pregnant staff.

Although “shielding” formally ended in March, the DfE advise that staff who are have been written to by the NHS and designated as “clinically extremely vulnerable” (or “high risk”) should continue to work from home where possible. If they cannot work from home should attend their workplace. They are advised to take all possible precautions to keep themselves safe and to discuss with employers any adjustments that might minimise risk still further. People subject to shielding were made a high priority in the first phase of vaccine roll-out and are urged to ensure they have accessed their jab.

Staff who consider themselves vulnerable because of long-term conditions such as diabetes or asthma should be safe to work. Again, they are urged to carefully follow all risk mitigation measures and to ensure they are vaccinated.

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

Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should discuss vaccination with their GP or midwife.

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.

Behaviour, discipline and wellbeing

The guidance states that schools must have clear policies in place which provide reasonable and proportionate expectations of pupil behaviour. DfE warn that the lack of routine and classroom discipline caused during lockdowns may have contributed to disengagement for some pupils returning to school. This could result in an increase in poor behaviour. In addition, DfE point out that some pupils may return to school having suffered from:

  • bereavement

  • anxiety

  • in some cases, increased welfare and safeguarding harms

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

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

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

School trips and education visits of all types were banned in England during the 2021 lockdown. From the 12th April domestic day trips and educational visits were reinstated as part of the lockdown easing roadmap. Any visits must be conducted with appropriate risk assessments in place and with adequate Covid-secure safety precautions.

DfE state that, in line with the roadmap, domestic residential educational visits should not be undertaken until at least step 3, no earlier than 17th May. This date may be adjusted according to government assessment of virus transmission risk.

International visits are more complex at this stage and the government has instigated a taskforce to identify the steps that will need to be taken to reintroduce safe school trips abroad. Until the taskforce reports such trips remain banned.

Inspections

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 September 2021. During the summer term Ofsted state that from May inspectors will restart some monitoring inspections in schools most in need of support, particularly schools graded as inadequate and some schools that require improvement. They state that, unless significant concerns are raised, there will be no inspections of secondary schools in the first half of the summer term. Ofsted state that this will allow leaders and staff to focus on assigning and submitting teacher-assessed grades. Secondary schools will therefore not be included in inspection schedules until later in June.

For non-association independent schools, between the start of May and the summer half term, DfE will only commission a standard inspection in exceptional circumstances, such as where a school is under enforcement action.

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

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.

Asymptomatic Testing Site (ATS) for conducting mass Covid tests for pupils to support reopening were deployed in schools from the start of March 2021. Schools had considerable flexibility to deliver ATS testing on a phased basis so they could be sure that pupils returning to school were free of the virus. The testing was voluntary but strongly encouraged by the DfE.

Ongoing testing should be supported from home.

Schools coronavirus (COVID-19) operational guidance states that both pupils and staff in secondary schools will be supplied with LFD test kits to self-swab and test themselves twice a week at home. Staff and pupils must report their result to the NHS Test and Trace service as soon as the test is completed either online or by telephone as per the instructions in the home test kit. Staff and pupils should also share their result, whether void, positive or negative, with their school to help with contact tracing.

Pupils aged 18 and over should self-test and report the result, with assistance if needed. Adolescents aged 12 to 17 should self-test and report with adult supervision. The adult may conduct the test if necessary. Children aged 11 attending a secondary school should be tested by an adult.

The DfE state that schools should retain a small on-site ATS on-site so they can offer testing to pupils who are unable or unwilling to test themselves at home.

Staff or pupils with a positive LFD test result must self-isolate in line with government stay-at-home guidance. They will also need to arrange a lab-based polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to confirm the result.

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. Primary age pupils should not be tested with LFD test kits.

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 has been 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, is the best way to help return the world to some form of normality.

Many vaccines have now been developed. In the UK 3 vaccines have now been approved for use by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA):

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

  • a vaccine developed by Moderna in the United States

  • a vaccine developed jointly by Oxford University and AstraZeneca

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

A strategy setting out priority groups for the vaccination roll-out was developed in December 2020 by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, Advice on priority groups for COVID-19 vaccination. The JCVI is the expert advisory group for vaccination in the UK. According to the strategy, the most vulnerable were initially prioritised, including care home residents and social care staff.

People on a GP register for learning disabilities were added in an update to the schedule. Also updated was the gap between jabs.

The Pfizer, AZ and Moderna vaccines all require a two-dose course. Both doses are required for full protection. The JCVI strategy was updated to place priority on the first injection with the second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine given between 3 to 12 weeks following the first dose and the second dose of the AZ vaccine given between 4 to 12 weeks following the first dose. This change was designed to promote a more rapid uptake amongst vulnerable persons. Operationally the MHRA recommend that a consistent interval should be used for all vaccines to avoid confusion and simplify booking.

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was initially delivered from a limited number of hospital hubs. This was because it needs to kept very cold. The AZ vaccine is easier to deploy and is being rolled out through hospitals, community vaccination centres, GP practices and “mass vaccination” hubs.

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 and everybody 50 and over will have been offered a jab by the end of the spring. 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.

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.

Updated safety details on the use of the AZ vaccine have been published by Public Health England, COVID-19 vaccination and blood clotting. The advice follows reports of an extremely rare adverse event of concurrent thrombosis (blood clots) and thrombocytopenia (low platelet count) following vaccination with the first dose of the AZ vaccine. This dented confidence in the vaccine and led to a number of countries temporarily pausing their programmes. The UK government did not pause and the JCVI, MHRA and the World Health Organisation all concluded that the benefits of vaccination outweigh this small risk for adults aged 30 years and over. Currently JCVI has advised that it is preferable for healthy younger people under 30 to have a vaccine other than AZ. This is because their risk of complications from Covid-19 is low and must be balanced against the risk of side-effects from the vaccine. Those who have already had a first dose of AZ vaccine without suffering any serious side-effects are advised to complete the course.

Public health doctors have been quick to welcome the development of the vaccines as a breakthrough in the fight against Covid-19. However, they warn that achieving full vaccination is a long process. 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. Vaccine trials are progressing on children and improved data on clinical risk factors and vaccination in childhood is developing.

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.