COVID-19 advice for staff in colleges

UNISON is working to ensure that staff are paid properly and treated fairly, and that colleges operate safely in 2021/22.

We know that many staff will be worried and anxious during this time, and UNISON is doing everything it can to uphold your rights at work, guarantee your financial position and safeguard your health.

UNISON has produced some FAQs setting out the latest advice for college staff working in England and Wales.

For general information about your rights at work during this health emergency please visit our dedicated web page.

My rights at work 

If you have any concerns or other questions, please contact your local UNISON branch.

Find my branch

Colleges in England

UNISON advice applies to all support staff working in further education and sixth form colleges.

In August/September 2021 colleges are expected to resume a full timetable of face-to-face learning for all 16-19 year olds and many adult learners. This means that all colleges must now revisit their risk assessments to include new measures, including:

  • ‘bubbles’ are not required on site (they may be deemed necessary by local management plans in areas with a high number of cases)
  • contact tracing will be carried out by the NHS and not by colleges
  • face coverings are no longer advised but are recommended in enclosed and crowded spaces
  • good ventillation is needed and areas that do not have sufficient natural or mechanical ventillation should not be used as work areas
  • all staff and learners should carry out two lateral flow tests, 3-5 days apart at the start of term
  • no-one with symptoms should be on-site

UNISON has produced detailed guidance on conducting risk assessments to support branches and reps who are involved with this.

Our COVID-19 risk assessment

Colleges in Scotland

The devolved government for Scotland has announced beyond level 0 guidance that reflects the general lifting of many restrictions and the advice prepared to support Higher and Further Education bodies.

At the start of term (and beyond for those under 16), institutions are strongly recommended to implement a greater level of protective measures and FE colleges should ensure measures go further than the minimum necessary to keep people safe. These minimum measures are:

  • it will continue to be the law, subject to exceptions, that face coverings must be worn in indoor public places and on public transport
  • Test & Protect will continue to contact-trace positive cases. Anyone who is required to self-isolate will, if eligible, continue to have access to support
  • local incident management teams will adopt appropriate outbreak control measures
  • travel restrictions, as and when necessary, will be used
  • continue to advise home working where possible, recognising that some staff will start to return to offices in line with staff wellbeing discussions and business need
  • rigorous hygiene, including regular hand washing, will along with good ventilation, continue to be essential
  • continue to advise that, especially indoors, keeping a reasonable distance from people in other households and avoiding places that are crowded will minimise risk.

Colleges are expected to continue taking all reasonable steps to protect staff, outsourced workers, students, visitors and others from coronavirus. By law, institutions will continue to undertake appropriate COVID-19 risk assessment work, and involve trade unions in such work.

Colleges in Wales

The Welsh Government has published general help and guidance for further education providers and students. They have also published some specific safe operation guidance for post-16 learning providers.

In consultation with the trade unions, the FE sector has published an ‘operational protocol’ to support the return of staff to
further education colleges in Wales.

Colleges in Northern Ireland

The NI Executive has stated the following:

FE colleges return to face-to-face teaching for all students in the new academic year and as ‘normal’ an academic learning environment as possible with social distancing in the classrooms removed.

However, all other mitigations contained within the Framework for the Safe Resumption of On-Site Educational Provision and Related Activity must remain in place and should still be adhered to.  This includes, but is not limited to the following:

  • wearing face coverings at all times on site;
  • the continued use of good hand hygiene;
  • maintaining 2 metre social distancing outside the classroom environment;
  • ensuring that surfaces are regularly cleaned and sanitised;
  • risk assessments and safe systems of work should be updated in line with existing HSE guidance and to reflect today’s changes, before the re-opening of premises and activities conducted on and off premises;
  • continuation of the agreed track and trace procedures; and
  • continue with the provision of Lateral Flow Self Testing (LFT) at FE college campuses for staff and students.

Providers have been advised to continue to follow industry guidelines where appropriate.

Additionally, the Executive has agreed to change the rules on self-isolation and therefore track and trace procedures should be updated to reflect this.

External sources of information

The Department for Education (England) has produced guidance for colleges:

The Association of Colleges (in England) has produced guidance for its members:

Colleges Wales issued the following statement for its members:

Advice for staff in Scotland is available at this link and in the resources section below.

Please note the FAQs below are currently being revised.

FAQs

FAQs

  • Cleaning

    What is the government’s guidance on college cleaning?

    The government’s advice on cleaning in a non-health care setting covers educational settings. There is additional advice published by the Department for Education on cleaning the environment. UNISON at a national level is continuously monitoring the situation.

    Who should be cleaning the college given the heightened levels of risk and what provisions should be made for their safety?

    Cleaners employed to clean the college should be provided with the correct equipment. This will include Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as gloves and appropriate cleaning solutions along with instructions. See our detailed advice.

    What about ‘deep cleaning’?

    Although there is no clear definition of a deep clean it is accepted that a deep clean is more than a standard or regular clean. Only cleaning staff should be asked to carry out a deep clean of a college or particular area within the college. If you are instructed to carry out deep cleaning duties and you are not employed as a cleaner you should make clear to your manager that this is not your role. If your manager continues to insist then contact your local UNISON branch and seek support.

    For cleaning staff, a risk assessment and training should be conducted and appropriate personal protective (PPE) equipment provided by the employer before any deep cleaning is carried out. Instructions should also be given on the use of any specialist equipment such as steamers for sanitising equipment, fixtures and fittings within the college.

    Cleaning chemicals should conform to the Chemical Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH) and be provided by the employer. Staff should not be asked to provide their own cleaning materials, solutions or equipment at any time.

    In conjunction with the above, colleges should:

    1. Contact the Local Health Protection Team for advice and support
    2. Ensure only those fully trained and equipped with the relevant protective equipment are involved in any deep clean. A specialist cleaning team may have to be established.
    3. Notify all staff of what is happening and keep them updated on any developments.

    What should happen in a deep clean situation when there has been a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19?

    In this situation the employer should do the following:

    1. Conduct full risk assessments
    2. Contact the Local Health Protection Team for advice and support
    3. Ensure only those fully trained and equipped with the relevant protective equipment are involved in any deep clean. A specialist cleaning team may have to be established.
    4. Provide the correct Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) including appropriate face masks for those responsible for decontaminating the college
    5. Notify all staff and keep them updated on any development.

    See our detailed advice. Also see the government advice on COVID-19: cleaning in non-healthcare settings.

    We are campaigning for better protections for cleaners at this vital time in our Clean Colleges, Safer Colleges campaign.

  • Covid testing

    What should my college be doing on test and trace? 

    When colleges reopen in the Autumn term the responsibilities of test and trace will have been passed to the NHS. For this reason, it is important that as many people as possible use the NHS Test and Trace app.

    At the start of term learners and staff will be offered two LFTs (lateral flow tests) spaced between 3 and 5 days apart. The Department for Education is responsible for ensuring that colleges have enough tests for this. Results of these tests are available within 30 minutes and staff and learners must be able to stay in a suitable, socially distanced space whilst waiting for these results. Any-one who tests positive needs to then be taken to a designated space where they can be safely isolated until they can safely travel home and follow government isolation guidelines.

    The DfE guidance has specific advice on test and trace.

    If you have issues with your employer, please raise them with your UNISON rep or local branch for advice and assistance.

    I’ve heard that lateral flow tests sent to colleges have not been approved for use as why do we have to have them?

    Lateral flow tests, particularly when self-administered have been shown to be considerably less reliable than would be desirable.BMJ evidence

    UNISON’s position is that lateral flow tests are better than nothing and should be used in conjunction with other safety measures, such as isolating, not instead of.

    Following newspaper reports than lateral flow tests have not been approved for use, UNISON has sought clarity with the Department for Health and Social Care who have stated that lateral flow tests have been approved for use in educational establishments to help detect asymptomatic cases but have not been approved for daily use as an alternative to isolation. The government has now dropped previous plans for using tests as an alternative to isolation.

    Do I have to have a test?

    Taking a test is voluntary, however UNISON urge members to engage with the testing programme as part of national efforts to control the spread of the virus.

  • Face coverings

    Should I wear a face covering at work?

    The government’s advice on face coverings in colleges is constantly changing. The latest guidance is that face coverings do not need to be worn. However the government also recommends that face coverings should be worn in crowded areas where social distancing cannot be acheived.

    UNISON’s position is that the removal of face coverings in colleges is premature and we continue to advise staff to wear them for their own protection and that of others until the scientific community are certain that the virus is no longer a significant danger.

    Employers should continue to allow staff and learners to wear face coverings if they choose to.

    If a risk assessment identifies that face ‘masks’ are needed as PPE the employer must source and provide these and put in place training on its correct use.

    The PPE required will depend on the nature of your role and should be issued where the risks you are exposed to make it necessary. Any staff who require it must be trained in its use. Please see UNISON’s PPE guide for more details.

  • Health and safety

    Our college doesn’t have adequate supplies of hand soap and sanitiser. How can we work safely?

    It is incredibly important that learners and staff have access to soap and warm water or sanitiser to wash your hands as this is a key recommendation to protect ourselves from the virus. The college must provide adequate supplies of soap/ sanitiser for all staff and learners. Ask the employer to increase the supply as a matter of urgency. Stocks of soap should be checked and replenished before the start of every day and hand sanitiser should be made available in classrooms and at reception.

    Who should be cleaning the college given the heightened levels of risk and what provisions should be made for their safety?

    Those employed to clean the college should be provided with the correct equipment. This will include Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) such as gloves and appropriate cleaning solutions along with instructions.

    See our detailed advice.

    What should happen in a deep clean situation when there has been a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19?

    In this situation the employer should do the following:

    1. Conduct full risk assessments
    2. Contact the Local Health Protection Team for advice and support
    3. Ensure only those fully trained and equipped with the relevant protective equipment are involved in any deep clean. A specialist cleaning team may have to be established.
    4. Provide the correct Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) including appropriate face masks for those responsible for decontaminating the college
    5. Notify all staff and keep them updated on any development.

    See our detailed advice.

    Also see the link to the government advice on COVID-19: cleaning in non-healthcare settings.

  • Mental health

    Where can I get emotional support?

    The pandemic has affected everyone in different ways, and you might need support with anxiety about being in the workplace, stress from juggling caring responsibilities or coping with bereavement or isolation. If your mental health has been affected, or if you just want to talk to someone, there are lots of options.

    UNISON’s own charity for members, There for You, can help you to find relevant sources of emotional support. For more information contact them on 020 7121 5620, email thereforyou@unison.co.uk or contact your branch welfare officer. Note you may also be able to access financial support from the charity if you need it.

    You can also contact Education Support, which offers a free 24/7 helpline with fully trained counsellors on hand to listen.

    UNISON continues to urge employers to take real action to support staff with their mental health.

  • Pay

    If I have to self-isolate or my college is closed as a result of a local lockdown will I still be paid?

    UNISON believe that all staff should be paid in full for any period of isolation, that this should not be recorded as sickness absence and should not therefore be counted against your sickness absence entitlement or used as part of any other procedure i.e. capability etc.

    Any other course of action risks undermining the national efforts to contain the virus.

    If you have issues with your employer, please urgently raise them with your rep or local branch for advice and assistance.

    I work for a private contractor in the college. What will happen to my pay if I have to self-isolate or the college is closed due to a local lockdown?

    Many contractors, e.g. cleaning are still being fully paid by the college. Some contractors, e.g. catering are being partially paid and can therefore use the ‘furlough scheme’ to cover 80% of staff wages where there is no work for them to do. UNISON knows that many staff working for contractors in colleges are low paid and cannot afford to be paid less. This is why we call on all contractors to pay their staff their full wages during periods of lockdown.

    In addition, this period should not be recorded as sickness absence and should not therefore be counted against your sickness absence entitlement or be used in any other procedure i.e. capability etc.

    UNISON is therefore calling on college employers to require contractors to pay full sick pay and the real Living Wage as a minimum (as part of our Clean Colleges, Safer Colleges campaign). This would help to remove financial barriers to outsourced staff self-isolating in cases of local COVID outbreaks. The importance of these measures cannot be overstated. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that those care homes which offered full contractual sick pay to their staff carried lower risk of infection to their residents.

    If you have issues with your employer, please raise them with your UNISON rep or local branch for advice and assistance. 

  • PPE

    Should my college be providing PPE?

    The DfE guidance says most staff in education settings don’t need Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) beyond what is required for their normal work and that it is only needed in a small number of cases. In their view such cases only include: where a pupil becomes ill with coronavirus (COVID-19) symptoms while at college, and if 2 metres cannot be maintained; or where a pupil already has routine intimate care needs that involve the use of PPE; or when performing aerosol generating procedures. Their advice recommends that colleges refer to safe working in education, childcare and children’s social care for more information about infection and PPE.

    UNISON strongly disagrees with this guidance. Risk assessments should decide whether PPE is necessary, particularly as different roles have different levels of risk. We do not think that the DfE should make this blanket statement. Colleges must ensure that they always have adequate supplies of PPE available. PPE such as disposable gloves, aprons and face masks must be made available following a risk assessment and where it is not possible to implement government guidance on social distancing.

  • Risk assessments

    What is a risk assessment?

    Employers must protect people from harm in the workplace. This includes taking reasonable steps to protect staff, pupils and others from coronavirus (COVID-19) within colleges. A risk assessment is the combined effort of identifying and analysing potential hazards and dangers that may negatively impact individuals.

    College employers have a legal duty to make sure that a risk assessment has been undertaken to identify the measures needed to reduce the risks from coronavirus (COVID-19) so far as is reasonably practicable and make the college COVID-secure.  All risk assessments should be periodically updated or as and when local and or individual circumstances change. Your college has a legal requirement to update its risk assessment to include additional/revised control measures needed for a full return to college in September and to consult with trade unions.

    UNISON believes that college should undertake an individual risk assessment for any staff member who requests one, for example if they or someone they live with is in a vulnerable group (please see separate FAQ on vulnerable and higher risk groups). The Department for Education guidance does not mention colleges carrying out individual risk assessments for vulnerable college staff – despite the fact that government advice for businesses reopening advises them to consider vulnerable groups. UNISON believes the DfE guidance for colleges on carrying out risk assessments is inadequate.

    The joint unions and employers in England have produced a helpful planning guide for colleges to check that safe procedures are being followed. You can also contact your local UNISON health and safety rep or local branch for further information and support.

    What is happening with risk assessments?

    Risk assessments must be treated as live documents and will need to have been updated prior to reopening in the Autumn term. By law the college must consult with union reps on the risk assessment. If you wish to see any aspect of the risk assessment contact your local UNISON rep who will have been involved with this.

    .

  • Special schools/colleges and alternative provision

    Are all pupils and learners with an Education, Health and Care plan vulnerable?

    The DfE latest advice states that all children and young people with an EHC Plan are vulnerable. This is different to the advice that the DfE issued in previous lockdowns. Whilst we know that UNISON members working in special education always go above and beyond for the young people in their care we believe that the blanket definition of vulnerable issued by the DfE is very unhelpful and does not reflect the needs of pupils and learners.

    Should all pupils with an Education, Health and Care Plan come into school?

    All children should be educated in the setting that is most appropriate to their needs. For many children they would be better served by receiving a remote education. The government advice for extremely vulnerable pupils who are currently shielding should return to on-sire education on 1 April.

    UNISON believe that head teachers and school staff should work closely with parents to establish what is best for the child/young person given the numbers of staff and resources available in the school setting.

    Can special schools and colleges offer places to all pupils/learners?

    In the current climate it is unlikely that all special schools/colleges can operate as usual. Positive cases will require staff and pupils to self-isolate. DfE guidance does allow for settings to reduce capacity when staffing is a problem.

    I work in a special school and know that many of the pupils will not want a swab for a covid test. What should I do?

    Firstly it is important to remember that participating in covid testing is voluntary and must not be carried out if the parent has not given their consent. If the pupil is to take part is testing but there are barriers to this it is important that the school works with the parent and the child to work out a plan of how that individual child might be able to take part. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this.

    The pupils in my school will not wear face coverings all day and I worry about the virus spreading because of this.

    There will be pupils in specialist settings who will be exempt from wearing a face covering due to their needs. This does not mean that you should be at risk. The risk assessment should identify suitable PPE and other mitigations in these circumstances.

    I work in a school where children have communication needs and have been told not to wear a face covering.

    The are different types of face covering that will allow you to feel protected whilst allowing pupils who need to lip read or see facial expression to see you. We recommend specialised clear face coverings rather than visors, since visors do not provide adequate protection from airborne transmission of the virus.

    I do not feel safe at my workplace due to the amount of children and young people in attendance.

    Please contact your branch and let them know. They will be able to advise you of your rights at work under Health and Safety legislation.

  • Vaccination

    UNISON encourages all staff to have the vaccine unless there is a medical reason not to do so.

    If you are unable to book a vaccination appointment outside of working hours, your employer does not legally have to give you paid time off to attend.

    UNISON believes that employers should offer staff paid time off as part of the national effort to offer all adults and young people over the age of 12 the vaccine as widely and quickly as possible.

    If I have to take time off because of a reaction to the vaccine can my employer class it as sick leave?

    Employers can categorise time off due to an adverse reaction to the vaccine as normal sickness absence.

    Acas guidance on the vaccine recommends paying full pay if staff are off sick with vaccine side effects and this type of absence should not count in sickness records or towards any trigger system in their absence management policy.

    UNISON supports this recommendation, so that staff are not deterred from getting vaccinated to avoid disciplinary action or having to work while feeling unwell. In the interests of encouraging staff to get the vaccine, any vaccine-related absence should be treated sympathetically. If you are concerned about a potential reaction to the vaccine and how this may affect your sickness absence please contact your branch for advice. 

    Can I lose my job if I do not have the vaccine?

    The vaccine is not compulsory for staff or learners in colleges although UNISON strongly encourages all staff to have it, if they can. No-one should be subjected to detrimental treatment for not having had the vaccine.

  • Vulnerable and higher risk groups

    What should my employer be doing to protect me?

    The joint unions, including UNISON, believe that staff should only attend the workplace when it is sufficiently safe for them as individuals to do so.

    Please read the detailed vulnerable members advice we have produced. This sets out our specific advice for each group so it is important that you read this carefully. There is also a model letter for you to send to your employer should you need it.

    Please contact your local UNISON branch for further advice and support.

Resources