Last reviewed 1 September 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 10 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 10 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 10 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.

National alert levels

The lockdown and requirement for social distancing has been informed by an alert level system introduced by the Government in May.

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.

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.

The latest Government requirements can be found in Staying alert and safe (social distancing). The measures are supported by widespread testing and by an NHS Test and Trace system which seeks to identify those who have been in contact with infected individuals.

The revised safety arrangements introduced a “1 metre plus” rule of social distancing. This means that wherever a distance of 2 metres between people cannot be achieved, an additional risk reduction measure must be adopted, such as wearing a mask or face covering. They also introduced additional requirements for wearing masks, for instance, in shops and on public transport.

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.

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

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

NHS guidance is available here.

Vulnerable (moderate-risk) people include those who:

  • are 70 or older

  • are pregnant

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

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

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

  • are very obese.

Extremely vulnerable (high-risk) people include those who:

  • have had an organ transplant

  • are having chemotherapy for cancer, including immunotherapy

  • are having an intense course of radiotherapy for lung cancer

  • have a severe lung condition (such as severe asthma or severe COPD)

  • are taking medicine that makes them much more likely to get infections (such as high doses of steroids)

  • have a serious heart condition and are pregnant.

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 have been 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 in the shielded category were written to by the NHS and advised not to leave home for at least 12 weeks from the date of the letter. They were advised to take stringent precautions.

As part of the general lockdown easing, those in the high-risk category in England were advised that from the start of June they could begin to go out with members of their own household if they were “comfortable” doing so. Those living alone were permitted to meet with someone from another household if they wished. However, in all cases they were advised to continue practising strict social distancing and hand hygiene.

From the start of August, the Government paused its shielding arrangements. Shielded individuals will be free to return to a Covid-safe workplace if they cannot work from home, and to go out for shopping and exercise.

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.

Key information for schools can be found in Guidance for full opening: schools. Additional information can be found in Safe working in education, childcare and children’s social care settings, including the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

School closures

Schools and early years settings were closed as part of the lockdown, except for a partial service to support vulnerable children and the children of key workers.

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.

Schools and early years provision that remained open during the early stages of the crisis did so on the basis of providing “Covid-safe” or “Covid-secure” premises. These stressed the importance of keeping people safe by supporting social distancing, personal hygiene and environmental cleaning.

School reopening

Plans were introduced under lockdown easing for a phased re-opening before the summer. However, in England these were delayed on safety grounds and replaced with an intention to fully reopen schools for the autumn term in September. All pupils will be expected to return to school except for the small number of pupils who will still be unable to attend if they are required to self-isolate or if local lockdown arrangements are in place.

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.

Guidance for full opening: schools, published by DfE, sets out the public health controls schools must introduce in order to minimise the risks of coronavirus (Covid-19) transmission when they reopen. The suggested measures are endorsed by Public Health England. All elements of the system of controls are considered essential. All schools must cover them all. However, the way different schools implement some of the requirements will differ based on individual circumstances.

The guidance states that essential public health controls should include:

  • a requirement that children or staff who are ill stay at home

  • robust measures covering hand and respiratory hygiene

  • enhanced cleaning arrangements

  • active engagement with the NHS Test and Trace system

  • a formal consideration of how to reduce contacts between those in school, wherever possible, and maximise “social distancing”.

DfE state that the first three measures — minimising contact with people who may have Covid-19 symptoms, thorough hand hygiene, effective respiratory hygiene (ie using tissues to catch coughs) and enhanced cleaning — must be in place in all schools all of the time.

The requirement for children and staff to remain at home if ill must apply to anybody who has Covid-19 symptoms. It should also apply to those who have tested positive in at least the last 10 days. All pupils and staff who are unwell or who test positive should be expected to follow the Government Stay at home guidance on self-isolating.

Some schools have developed a “Covid code of conduct” for pupils to follow. The codes are being developed to help cope with any anti-social behaviour related to the coronavirus safety measures. This would include such behaviours as deliberately breaking hygiene or social distancing rules, deliberately coughing on others, etc.

Reducing contact

Reducing contact between people minimises the risks that individuals will transfer the virus between them. This is a key element in reducing virus transmission and is the basis behind social distancing.

The DfE state that there are a number of organisational arrangements that should allow schools to reduce contacts between people while in school and maximise social distancing. The guidance points out that the exact methods used will depend on the type of school (ie primary or secondary) and the school's particular and unique circumstances.

Suggested arrangements include:

  • grouping children together

  • avoiding contact between groups

  • arranging classrooms with forward facing desks

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

For younger children, the DfE state that an emphasis on groups will usually be most effective. The consistent grouping of children should reduce the risk of transmission by limiting the number of pupils and staff in contact with each other to only those within each group. Such arrangements were used in schools prior to the summer holidays. 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

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

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

  • door handles

  • handrails

  • table tops

  • play equipment

  • toys

  • electronic devices (such as phones).

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

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

Face masks

The wearing of face masks or face coverings has become a complicated issue in many societies, including the UK.

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

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

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

Examples of where face coverings are appropriate include:

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

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

Where face coverings are required it is vital that they are worn correctly. Clear instructions must be provided to staff, children and young people on how to put on, remove, store and dispose of face coverings to avoid inadvertently increasing the risks of transmission.

The DfE state that in intervention areas, face coverings should be worn by adults (staff and visitors) and pupils when moving around indoors, such as in corridors where social distancing is hard to maintain. Intervention areas are designated areas where transmission rates of the virus are considered to be high.

The guidance states that:

  • a small contingency supply of masks should be kept for pupils who are struggling to access one

  • no one should be excluded from education on the grounds that they are not wearing a face covering.

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

School transport, drop-off and pick-up

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

DfE guidance suggests that schools consider having staggered start and finish times. 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 wherever necessary.

In addition, the Government states that it expects public transport to be constrained in most areas throughout the autumn term.

Face coverings must be worn by pupils on school and public transport. Arrangements must be in place for them to take these off on arrival and wash their hands. Reusable coverings should be kept in plastic bags until home time.

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.

Illness on-site

Schools must have systems in place to ensure that anyone developing coronavirus symptoms during the school day is sent home.

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

Safe working in education, childcare and children's social care settings, including the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) provides a range of guidance for dealing with pupils or adults with suspected infections on-site, including the personal protective equipment that staff should wear.

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

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

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

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 while at school. It includes guidance on the provision of free school meals for those who are eligible.

During the nationwide lockdown, emergency plans had to be put into operation to ensure that those pupils and young people who relied on free school meals could still access help despite having to stay at home.

When schools fully open in September, they must work with their suppliers to prepare meals or food parcels for pupils who are eligible for benefits-related free school meals but who are not in attendance because they:

  • are self-isolating

  • have had symptoms or a positive test result themselves

  • are a close contact of someone who has coronavirus (Covid-19)

  • are not attending as a result of local lockdown arrangements.

The DfE state that schools may wish to work with other local schools to provide food boxes where they are easier to deliver or collect from one location, or when supporting multiple children from the same family who attend different schools.

SEND pupils

SEND pupils and those with education, health and care plans may need additional support to return to school safely. A small number of pupils will be considered “high-risk” from Covid-19 and may need to be “shielded” due to health conditions. Formal shielding arrangements for extremely clinically vulnerable people were paused at the start of August but will be kept under review and may be reinstated in areas where lockdown restrictions need to be reimposed.

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. Parents should be encouraged to follow the online DfE advice, Supporting your children's education during coronavirus (Covid-19).

Staff health and safety

Staff health and safety should be a key consideration in all schools. Every effort should be made to consult and keep people safe. The Government expert advisory group believes schools are a low risk setting, especially at the present time when Covid-19 virus transmission rates are much reduced. The group advise that staff who were considered high-risk or “extremely vulnerable” due to underlying health conditions during the height of the pandemic, should be safe to return to work provided the necessary “essential controls” are in place. They should take particular care to observe good hand hygiene and social distancing.

School trips

DfE advise against domestic (UK) overnight and overseas educational visits at this stage. However, non-overnight domestic educational visits can resume. Appropriate risk assessments should be completed and Covid-safe measures put in place.


Ofsted has announced a programme of “visits” to schools when they reopen in the autumn. The visits will not be formal inspections and will not be graded. Their aim will be to reassure the public about how schools and colleges are managing to reopen safely. Inspections were cancelled at the start of the pandemic.

Local lockdown contingency plans

Just because the current virus transmission rate is low in most parts of the country does not mean that the pandemic is over. The search goes on for a viable vaccine and until one is developed countries all over the world must continue their efforts to keep the virus under control. If transmission rates increase again the Government has made it clear that it will act to impose local lockdowns. Schools must have contingency plans in place should a lockdown occur in their area. This will include plans to deliver home learning and support vulnerable children.

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. This was extended in June with the introduction of new quarantine rules which require 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. If a person does not have suitable accommodation to go to they will be required to stay in facilities arranged by the Government.

Certain countries where virus transmission rates are low are exempt. Education staff intending to travel abroad should check on the latest country listings from the Home Office before travelling.

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.

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

Vaccine development and 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.